Monday Morning Music Ministry

Start Your Week with a Spiritual Song in Your Heart

The Way To End School Shootings, I

2-19-18

Another week, another school shooting. Or so it seems; the news media and politicians recently cited 18 deaths by firearms on American school properties in the first six weeks of this year.

Well, it turns out that most of those were parking-lot encounters after dark, between adults; or accidental discharges barely near schools, and so forth. Four angry, and ugly, assaults – but I am not saying “only four,” Any is too many.

The gun issue is one of many in contemporary America where hyperbole has overtaken rationality. Everyone – I think on both, or all, sides – readily adopts exaggerations and logical extensions and, lately, personal invective, to press their points.

What once was abstract is individual, and we see it in the “gun debate” as much as in any other area, and even among people who never encountered danger or grief. We can of course be passionate about issues without being touched personally. But I know the real root cause of our heated debates these days in America – that are more heat than debate.

It is the Slippery Slope. The term in logic indicates the danger of granting one point, in fear of losing the entire argument. To open the door a crack threatens to destroy the entire house, given time.

The Slippery Slope is more than a debating term. When it is used today, even when not called by name, people in effect indicate distrust of the opponent. In the gun debate, for instance, many defenders of the Second Amendment believe that any compromise will be seized upon, leading to… seizure of all firearms. “Give an inch; they’ll take a mile,” and it did not help rational debate when a Democrat officeholder a few years ago admitted that, yes, she would not stop at each restriction.

We can avoid slippery slopes by not even going near the slopes.

For instance, the solution to the “gun problem” in America is simple.

Not “easy,” but simple. Questions and answers:
For two centuries we have had virtually unrestricted access to firearms, and virtually no mass slayings and “senseless” attacks. Why?

Is it because guns are more sophisticated and deadly? Nonsense. Everything exists in the context of its time. Daggers are more convenient than dueling swords, yet there were not mass stabbings when they were readily available.

Speaking of knives, if the automatic reaction of many people – ban all guns – were a solution, should we look at the growing numbers of mass killings around the world by weaponized cars and trucks, and, yes again, random stabbings, and… ban cars and trucks and knives?

Such scenarios depend on slippery slopes, to propose and dispose… and will never lead to solutions.

It is self-swindling delusion to look to Washington for the answer to these problems, and almost everything, these days. “Why doesn’t the president act?” “Why doesn’t Congress DO something?”

Let’s explain something to America: Shut up. Washington is not the answer to everything… cannot be the answer to everything… and, as often as not, is the answer to nothing; unable to have the answers. Washington is not our savior.

We already have a Savior. And now we are face to face with our solution. Remember, I said “easy,” but not simple; not simple to make happen. Not in America, 2018.

Guns don’t make kids shoot. Hate makes them shoot. Listen to people shouting about laws and calling for more guards and more psychologists and more counselors. Where is Jesus in the middle of it all? Can you hear anyone calling for Him? For more God?

Some of the “simple” solutions in next week’s message.

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Click: Hard Times, Come Again No More

About God and Broken Hearts

2-12-18

St Valentine is one of those saints who has become known as much for not having lived as for the sacred ascriptions to his disputed existence. The Catholic Church removed him from its calendar of actual saints some years ago, bowing to the back-canonical aspect of his legend. Like some other former saints, he might have been invented to fill a need.

Or, there having been several priests and martyrs named Valentine during Christianity’s first few centuries, the saint associated with love and high interpersonal devotion might be an amalgam.

In any case – and to the extent we keep in context the elements of remembering loved ones, and the power of love, and the encouragement to love – we can affirm the flowers and cards and hugs. Hallmark and ProFlowers and CandyGrams aside, it is good to revere love in the larger sense.

Love, actually, is not love if considered, and exercised, outside the “larger” context. People have tried to define the distinctions between humankind and beasts – laughing, cruelty, imagination, disco music – but Loving must be the predominant quality. We can receive love; we can offer love; we can act according to love, at least when we are not hating, and this explains a lot of history’s art and music and literature and poetry.

Can we understand it? Not fully, I say… but that is part of its allure and fascinating essence. I also think we are fated to only imperfectly express love: and even then only to the extent we can receive it.

“Love is patient, love is kind… ”

Which gets us face-to-face with God’s love. His love created the world – the universe and all therein. His love supersedes His vengeful aspects in that while we were yet sinners, He sent His only Son to become flesh and dwell among us, and take upon Himself the punishment we deserve for our rebellion. That is love.

As I asked above, Can we understand it? As I answered, not fully. We never will. But we can accept it.

Recently we shared thoughts here about unanswered prayer. Can a loving God say No to our earnest pleas? As God, fulfilling His job description so to speak, He knows what we need, even when we are persistent about things we want. The basis of that (as if He needs to justify Himself… but understanding this helps our faith) is… Love.

The heart is a fist-sized organ with fleshy tubes in and out, chambers, valves, and uncountable pulsations. How this hard-working bloody thing came to be associated by poets and painters, saints and sages, with the tenderest of often indescribable emotions is another thing I will never understand.

Yet we draw heart shapes when we are in love, despite the fact they don’t resemble hearts. We send drawings of them to those we love; we carve them into tree trunks. Even the worst characters in history have loved someone – a girl or guy; their mothers; a pet. It is a disease for which there is no immunity. Thank God.

On the other hand, the human race is not immune to the Broken Heart either. In a way, these sad experiences validate the positive truth and power of romantic love: it is not abstract, not an illusion. To paraphrase the poet: Love is real! Love is earnest!

Returning to the God-foundation of these matters (as He is the foundation of all things), even God has not escaped the reality of a Broken Heart. He identifies with our sorrow, our grief, and to the aspect of love that can “leave a hole” in our emotions.

God Himself? Yes, despite His plans and ordained Will, He knew – He knows – what it is like to lose a Son. But God so loved the world…

Please think of love, then, as more than the cheap theme for a holiday; and don’t let it ever become a cheap theme in your life.

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Click: Open the Eyes of My Heart

Saving You From Yourself

1-29-18

Any believer, whether casual or seasoned, whether a “baby Christian” or steeped in the faith, who does not have a “promise book” somewhere on the bookshelves, has not gone through a common stage of spiritual evolution. It is not necessary or requisite to have that book of life’s challenges and predictable crises, but it happens frequently among us. Arranged by category they are, with lists of comforting Bible verses, also instruction and encouragement.

Useful things, these promise books. I am in no way minimizing their value. If you don’t have one, get one; there are many you can find. A lot of them are pocket-size, to keep at the ready.

But. After a while their verses will make their way into your memory, at least as the Kingdom Principles of God – the uniform and unified major themes of scripture. The Bible says that we are to know the intentions of the Lord, and “hide them in our hearts.” Consistent study of the Bible itself results in this.

Perhaps the most dog-eared pages in those Promise Books are where the categories address Approaching God; Lifting Petitions and Requests; How to Receive; and Answers to Prayer.

There are verses in the Bible that we often distort. We presume when we should not. Devout believers in solitary prayer closets can do this, just as earnest televangelists speaking to thousands in arenas sometimes do too. “Say to the mountain, be thou moved”… “the faith of a mustard seed”… “greater works you will do”… you must know the verses.

Are they not true? Yes, they are true – God does not lie and can not lie.

However, the whole of scripture also reminds us that Jesus wept on occasion; that He left towns because the level of unbelief prevented even His miracles from being manifested. So… how to proceed? How to appreciate the context of verses?

We must be careful not to treat Promise Books like Wish Lists. Lifting the burdens of your heart to the Lord should not take the form of a shopping list. Even mature Christians can confuse requests with demands.

When you pray, believing, the first beliefs must be in the Sovereignty of God; of His love; and a trust in His will for our loves.

This brings us to an essential element of true faith. Lest I sound like like a skeptic in this essay, I once was persuaded by the “name it and claim it” variety of faith. I saw miracles, yes, and experienced some. My wife prayed healing for her failing heart, and was miraculously healed… by a transplant. And we gave God the glory. Two years later she was diagnosed with cancer, and she submitted to an operation… until the doctors confessed to one of those “we can’t explain it” situations. All traces of the cancer were gone. Answer to a largely unspoken prayer.

That God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform is a non-Bible verse that everyone knows; and is true. It is also true – and our faith is not weak when we accept it – that when God answers prayer, sometimes the answer is No. Sometimes the answer is delayed. Sometimes the answer is different than we hope (or demand).

But all the time the answers remind us that God is God.

It is He who hath made us; and not we ourselves. The same with prayer: we need to remember that when we pray in spirit and in truth – that is, in genuine trust – the Holy Spirit inhabits our prayers. In fact, the Bible assures us that when we are confused, weak, lacking confidence, the Spirit takes over! The Spirit will groan, if necessary, before the Throne of God, with the desires of our hearts.

And that principle is what should save us from ourselves, so not to approach God unworthily.

We know our desires, and want to lift them to God.

But He knows our needs, and will always meet them.

Our desires and our needs are two very different things. We cannot always know them… and we very often confuse them. God knows them. Trusting in His lovingkindness, sublimating our own view of things, is when Faith acquires meaning in our lives.

God reads our hearts anyway, so we don’t need prayers to “make points” with Him. Pray believing… pray trusting Him… and pray knowing that His whole book is full of those Promises.

He knows how to keep them.

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Click: I Know Who Holds Tomorrow

That’s Life

1-22-18

There is a verse in James that admonished us to be “doers of the Word, and not hearers only.” The Bible reminds us often that God sees all we do; and so do the “Heavenly cloud of witness” of Hebrews 11. Often we might be tempted to wear two hats – the secular (when we argue about politics) and the sacred (when we forgive all, forget all).

That is shameful. We all live at the intersection of Sacred and Secular. There is no forwarding address.

I offer this on Celebration of Life week, Sanctity of Life Sunday.

When the mists, or smoke, of current controversies are swept away, I believe the world will see abortion – the act, the arguments, the very concept – in a different light. Most likely the “old” light, history’s traditional attitude. I pray.

Of course, the attitudes of various societies have been mutable, little different than any stands on any controversy. Honestly, there has not been a straight line in manners and morals on monogamous marriage, infant sacrifice, slavery, the role of women, personal freedom and liberty, democracy, even monotheism until the Revealed God revealed Himself fully.

Despite infant sacrifice, with its essentially different set of foundations, abortion is an act that mostly has been regarded as anathema at all times and in all places. By whole societies and by single women. Its sanction, and its approval, have always been exceptions. Mostly it is regarded as something to be discouraged because of the implicit recognition that it is horrible, contrary to human impulses.

Until our generation.

The anguish and severe challenges presented by unplanned, unwanted pregnancies are significant. They represent dilemmas that are endemic to the human family, and – no matter how much abortion might be outlawed – they will take place. To recognize this fact is not to approve of it. But to accept it as the price of a community, a society, maintaining consistent standards and trying to codify a moral code, is, well, the price to pay.

A lot of the world preceded the US, or closely followed us, in the legalization of abortion. Today, we have been reminded this week, we “surpass” most of the world in providing free abortion services… and we are among the few human-rights garden spots like North Korea and China that allow late-term abortions, killing babies otherwise viable outside the womb.

We should not need numbers like almost 60-million American abortions since Roe vs Wade… nor photos of aborted babies… nor facts like the bigoted Margaret Sanger (Planned Parenthood founder) encouraging abortions in the black and brown communities especially… to come face-to-face with the horror of abortion.

Fifteen years ago I interviewed Norma McCorvey, the “Roe” of Roe vs Wade, who had regretted her manipulation, reversed her views, and became a Christian. Pro-Life. Her testimony confirmed my views, but did not change them. That happened earlier; for a long time I was indifferent to the issue, and saw it as more a matter of convenience than morality. I even took that point of view in public, and now am conscious of blood on my hands.

But one does not have to trade Pragmatism for Christianity to realize that abortion is murder.

Why is America so militant, now, about abortion? Why is it a litmus test in broad swaths of society – why does the Democrat Party, for instance, forbid convention speakers and candidate endorsements to “pro-life” people?

I return to looking forward to the mists parting. Whether we go deeper into self-indulgence, or return to traditional values, abortion WILL be the litmus test. One does not have to abandon feminism, or denigrate women, to oppose abortion. The Big Lie that women are pro-choice and men want disposable women and babies, is belied by the profile of marchers at Pro-Life rallies; by fervent advocates I have met; by counselors (like Pam Stenzel, a friend from Grand Rapids MI) who speaks to kids about pre-marital sex – herself a product of a rape, whose mother decided against aborting her at the last moment.

If you don’t like being a woman who is “wired” to bear babies, don’t conceive. You cannot reverse nature. A lot of times it stinks to be a man, but, whatever. People have intimidated the culture to an extent; but they cannot reverse nature. They can tinker with the plumbing, but we still are men and women. Period; no pun intended.

Therefore, abortion, as a litmus-test, is a symbol. It is the result, not a cause, of America having become a Culture of Death. Abortion, homosexuality, the decline of marriage, all are symptoms of impulses that resist life and the advancement of the species – which of course sounds clinical and impersonal. But the truth is VERY personal. We respect life, or we don’t.

And the debate continues, often distracted by questions of a once-in-a-decade death sentence, or war in faraway places. Those arguments are healthy; but in the meantime, many of us CAN do something about the Culture of Death in our midst.

When we have become desensitized to death, we have become desensitized to life.

There is a common impulse behind the totalitarian lockstep attitude some people have toward abortion. It is common to militant homosexuality, to gender-bending, to newfound “rights,” to sex-change operations. To the redefinition of “marriage,” not to welcome legal precision, but to make it socially meaningless. To the ubiquity of Political Correctness. The apparent anarchy of PC attitudes is really the New Religion – the replacement of God.

We are witnessing – and, God help us, enabling – the slow death of God… in the way that Nietzsche really meant his phrase: when God become irrelevant in a society, He IS dead to its people. God is not really dead, of course: if you listen quietly you can hear Him weeping.

And those other sounds, if you listen closer, whether from unmarked graves or hospital dumpsters, are the cries of millions and millions of babies.

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Click: Psalm 139 – Jesus Loves Me

Time and Chance Happeneth To All

1-15-18

Two good friends this week recounted some tough circumstances in their lives. Who among us does not have rough patches? The answer is None.

The difference between us, at these times, is how we react. My two friends each said that things are in God’s hands; that the Lord has a purpose. I pray that most people who say such things really have deep-seated trust and faith, as my friends do. But who among us does not occasionally fall back on such sayings as… sayings?

God forbid that we are not serious about discerning – and seeking – God’s will in hard times. And good times, too, no less!

I believe we have free will, and we all might believe that actions have consequences. Yet God orders our steps. A contradiction? Not at all. When we seek His will, God often answers in ways that are mysterious to us… and very often contrary to the shopping-list of demands that our prayers must sometimes look like to Him.

It is an essential element of faith, I think, that even if we let ourselves be virtual leaves on the stream of life, sometimes, God moves us, slows us, speeds us, and directs us – in spite of ourselves, sometimes, according to His will. If we love God, have faith, and accept the calling to His purposes.

Have you ever looked back on your life and realized how radically different things would be – family, profession, homes – if this, or that, had not happened?

I think of my dear daughter Emily, who lives in Northern Ireland now. When she was barely 10, missionaries visited our little church and told of their work in Central American villages. She was mightily affected, full of emotion, and dedicated her life, young Christian as she was, to work in the missions field, and serving Christ. Before, during, and after her college years, she joined missions trips to Mexico and Russia and Northern Ireland.

She had a heart for the hate-filled streets of Derry (scenes of the bloody “troubles” between Catholics and Protestants through the years) and returned there, for a longer stay. During that posting she made friends, fell in love with a guy from the local church, Norman. They married and attended Bible College together in Dublin, and have served in Ireland and Northern Ireland. And have “been fruitful and multiplied,” making this Papa proud of two grandchildren.

Ah! What if we, 25 years ago in Pennsylvania, had joined another church, or gone away the Sunday those missionaries visited? Would Emily have received that vision, found that passion? What if she had attended a different college here… or not made friends, when we lived in California, with our friend Paula who preceded her in that Northern Ireland missions program?

What if? What if?

Perhaps, when we think of these life-threads as we all can. God would have us wind up in the same places, but by different routes! More likely, it seems to me, we could be in different places doing different things. (I hate to think, as a father, that I would not have the children with whom God did bless me!)

This is not an essay, or ramblings, about the randomness of life: just the opposite!

As Christians we must rejoice in the fact that we are God’s; it is He who has made us and not we ourselves. We do not float through our allotted time willy-nilly, trying to remember to pray that we luck out in places we find ourselves. Rather we should earnestly pray to see God’s hand in our lives’ events… we must bathe every decision in prayer to seek His will (God promises never to leaves such prayers unanswered)… we must be patient to hear His voice and His leading… and we must pray for spiritual discernment to guard against crowding out His answers with our desires.

A current meme among Christians these days is, “It’s a God thing.” That phrase is used to explain “good” things, dismiss “bad” things, and is mantra for many occurrences in between. Some things ARE God things, yes. But a lot of things are also Satan-things; us-things; even dumb-things. We must learn to anticipate beforehand and discern afterwards.

Ecclesiastes 9:11 says that “Time and chance happeneth to all.” Let us not be fooled that God was explaining the randomness of life. Rather that we, His children, all have the same challenges; that we all are in the same boat. Or are the same leaves in the same stream of His care.

BUT. Just as important. God’s streams God’s streams have twists and turns and little spots where the water swirls unexpectedly. My way of saying that we need to be conscious of more than where we are taken, and what affects us. Just as often – in face, frequently – YOU might be the person, that random friend, a “missionary” telling a tale, even a stranger leaving an impression on someone. A daughter, a neighbor, a stranger, and perhaps the littlest word or action can wind up changing that person’s life.

Such things, indeed, happeneth to all.

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Please, please, listen to this moving song about this very subject. By Ray Boltz.

Click: Thank You For Giving To the Lord

Don’t Mess With Mr In-Between

1-1-18

There is a pop-music classic, and American show tune, that has been covered by every great singer, at least of the Jazz Age. Written by Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen, and its first recording by Mercer – a terrific vocalist whose own singing has been neglected through the years – it has been a hit for many artists.

“You’ve Got to Accentuate the Positive” is sometimes spelled with the song’s lilting “Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive,” but often referred to by its catch phrase, “Don’t Mess with Mister In-Between.” From a 1940s musical, the lyrics were inspired by, and made reference to, a revival sermon:

Gather ’round me, everybody – Gather ’round me while I’m preachin’, Feel a sermon comin’ on me. The topic will be sin and that’s what I’m against. If you wanna hear my story, Then settle back and just sit tight , while I start reviewin’
The attitude of doin’ right.

You’ve got to accentuate the positive, Eliminate the negative, And latch on to the affirmative! Don’t mess with Mister In-Between…

Performed in a variety of styles, many Americans today are familiar with it, and it lives in playlists and even commercials. It was background music in the movie L.A. Confidential, and Jerry Lee Lewis frequently uses the phrase – perhaps preaching to himself – in soliloquies at the piano. Its message is deeper than the lyrics of many show tunes, and has applications for revival congregations, moviegoers, and anyone with ears to hear.

Is it grist for a New Years essay? Like any good gospel message, its points are pertinent any day of the year – just as Christmas and Easter sermons ought to be re-visited in seasons apart from those holidays’ traditional festivals.

But if this is a time of year when we all look backward, look forward, and make resolutions (even if, like many promises and laws, they are made to be broken), then it is time indeed to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative… but most importantly, look out for Mr In-Between.

Why should Mr In-Between be avoided?

Jesus Himself provides the obvious answer – obvious and usually ignored or avoided by Christians – speaking to John in the Book of Revelation: And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.

This advice is harsh because it cuts to the core of our souls’ sincerity, our position before God. We cannot be lukewarm about spiritual things!

Either God exists, or He does not.

Either Jesus is His Son, and believing in Him, confessing our sins, leads to forgiveness and eternal life, or not.

Either there is a Heaven and Hell, or there is not. Either Jesus is the only way to achieve salvation and eternal security, as He said, or not.

Don’t mess with In-Between. These things cannot be almost true; or mostly true. It’s like being almost pregnant. In the Book of Acts, Chapter 26, Paul’s appearance before King Agrippa in Rome is recorded. He defends himself against charges of the Jews; he relates his own persecution of Christians; his conversion; and his evangelism, the miracles he had seen; and the powerful presence of Christ in his new life.

Agrippa, listening and absorbing all this, admits to Paul that he was “almost persuaded” to become a Christian. This was meant as a compliment to Paul’s testimony.

But a preacher once said that to be “almost” persuaded is to be not persuaded at all; to be “almost” saved is the same as being totally lost. In these times we all seem to seek for compromise… the Golden Mean… the middle position, to satisfy everyone.

But Jesus would have us hot or cold, not lukewarm. To compromise with evil is to be evil. He will spit us out!

The American hymnodist Philip P Bliss heard a Dwight L Moody sermon on this subject, and wrote one of the powerful exegetical songs of the American church: Almost Persuaded.

At New Year, it is a good time to examine where we stand with God… with ourselves, our standing in Eternity. To be almost persuaded is to be certainly nothing. We fool neither ourselves nor our God. Be hot or cold – one of them! Choose today; do not be lukewarm in life. Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.

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Click: Almost Persuaded

Walls

12-4-17

In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: We have a strong city; God makes salvation its walls and ramparts (Isaiah 26:1).

At this time of turmoil and fast-moving events – television news crews must think they are participating in triathlons these days; and viewers risk whiplash – we try to process wars and rumors of wars; economic upturns; legislative battles; scandals and daily surprises; government crises; terrorism; candidates rising and falling here and abroad…

Our lives go on, and I pray that holidays recently celebrated and coming soon are remembered as just that: holy-days.

In times when we feel adrift, even when some of us feel the thrill of change (for surely we all regret the changes just as often)… the anchor holds. The anchor MUST hold: we need to be moored and have security. It is useful not only to our bodies and peace of mind and our economies and our sanity, but our very souls.

A problem, if not THE problem, of our time is that too many people, and our culture itself, is ignorant of life’s anchors and their importance. Worse, contemporary society rejects the very concept of anchors – grounding, standards, Truth – and how essential they are to our lives. They are not options but necessary components.

With a great debate on taxes behind us, and despite other issues swirling about, the question of Walls will remain. It is not owned by one politician or one party, even if it seems so. Borders – as with language and culture – are elemental definers of a nation. The mightiest wall I have seen in my life surrounds the Holy City, the Vatican. There are others around the world. The Great Wall of China is so great as to be seen by orbiting astronauts; it was not ornamental, however, but an effective defense for centuries.

The White House has a secure fence, though sometimes porous. Museums have gates and Plexiglas shields. Bridge walkways have guard-rails – for safety; sometimes against suicide attempts. Liberal celebrities, despite their anti-gun and anti-wall positions, live behind armed guards and fortified walls. The estate of film producer Michael Moore, in my neck of the woods, has defenses that could repel many armies.

In the end, of course, walls are neutral structures. Like guns, or even votes, their usefulness depends on the functions for which they are designed, and the character of the owners. The strength and effectiveness of walls are not always gauged to keep people out, neither to keep people in: Ultimately, the strength of families, homes, and communities is measured by in what lives within the walls.

The operative factor, then, is not physical strength. Not weapons ready to attack, nor shields with which to defend.

It is righteousness, the God of our Fathers told us. It can be manifested in songs of praise.

At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites… were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres (Nehemiah 12:27).

It is prosaic, perhaps, to seize upon the upcoming Holy Days of many faiths to pray that we can take a breath, or escape the maelstroms for a spell, and count our blessings. Too many of us, during overheated crises, take perverse joy in hating… or, at least, in fighting. Even when we think our cause is just – or convince ourselves that we are fighting HIS fight, not our own – let us not forget that “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails….” I Corinthians 13:5-8.

Love is a weapon too.

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Reminding us that walls are not exclusive but always have utility, this video clip is of joyful singing unto the Lord in Jerusalem, at David’s Citadel. The Isaacs; mom Lily and her children Becky, Ben, and Sonya.

Click: Hallelujah

Here I Stand

10-2-17

This month is the occasion for a grand remembrance. The last Sunday in October traditionally is observed by Protestants as Reformation Sunday, when, on All Saint’s Day, Father Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses – basically, theological complaints – to the castle church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

Extra special is the fact that his act was in the year 1517, so the 500th anniversary is now observed. Half a millennium, roughly 25 per cent of the age of Christ’s Church on this earth. Even unchurched people know the basics of the revolution that commenced with those hammered nails – Luther’s nails ironically recalling the nails that Christ endured as He offered Himself a living sacrifice for us.

I wonder how the church will observe the “anniversary” of the Reformation. I have noticed that package-tour groups are available to cities in Germany and places associated with Luther’s life. More than that, I don’t know. I made a pilgrimage of sorts to Augsburg, Germany, in 1983, the place and 500th anniversary of his birth. In the Augsburg Cathedral I had reasonable expectations of a grand worship service, and a stirring rendition of his great hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”

There was, however, a small service attended by mere dozens of worshipers, in a side chapel and a charming but very modest, ancient free-standing pump organ.

Martin Luther is honored only in the breach, as they say, in many of the lands where his spiritual revolution once seized the hearts of men. The reforms of the reform-ation are evanescent; or in dire need of revitalization. Brother Martin is, possibly, in 2017 more of a historical than a theological figure.

I have said that unchurched people know something of his life. That is, to be precise, only to the extent that anyone knows much or cares much about history these days. To paraphrase George Santayana, those who have not learned from history are already doomed. The young Luther, training to be a lawyer, decided after what he perceived to be a life-saving miracle to join the clergy, and became an Augustinian monk. God’s hand might have been in that choice, because there are clear philosophical and theological lines from Platonism to the early Church fathers to St Augustine to Luther.

As a faithful clergymen he made a pilgrimage to Rome, walking from Germany. At the Vatican he was repelled by corruption and open scandals. Even back in Germany, the Roman church was becoming an agency of money-hustling, famously among other acts selling “indulgences” that promised poverty-stricken givers that souls of dead relatives would be boosted closer to Heaven in proportion to their “donations.”

Other offenses Luther identified, such as non-Biblical cosmology, veneration of saints, and Mariology, also led to the 95 Theses. Local Catholic clergy, representatives of the Vatican, and the Pope himself were much displeased, especially as Luther’s critiques gained currency. Germany was a land of greater literacy and ecclesiastical freedom than other corners of Christendom. Rome, already making a practice of suppressing and executing other critics (Luther was not the first voice of protest) sanctioned Brother Martin; demanded that he recant his many writings (including, strangely, those that were quite orthodox); excommunicated him; and sought to imprison him.

Luther was certain that Rome intended to kill him for his ideas, as it had done with previous reformers like Jan Hus in Prague and John Wycliffe (posthumous excommunication of desecration of his remains) in England. But the rising spiritual sophistication of German princes coincided with their growing desire to be free of the Catholic Church’s political and military dominance.

Religion, culture, and politics coincided. So did another great factor: Literacy. The average German could read better, and with more depth, than other Europeans to whom words and ideas were anathema, as so decreed by Rome. Largely proscribed from reading their Bibles and having to sit through Latin church services, Christians outside the German states beheld Christianity as dear to their hearts but largely alien relative to their daily lives.

My Catholic friends will dispute my characterizations of the fervor of Catholics of the day, or of the spiritual hunger of Luther’s fellow Germans and Scandinavians, yet two counter-arguments stand: Luther’s foundation-stone, based on Ephesians 2: 8,9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God, Not of works, lest any man should boast,” which confronted the authority of the Pope and efficacy of indulgences and putative good deeds. And… the empirical evidence, the speed at which the Reformation spread through Europe. And the world.

A lightning lesson. We will visit some other aspects of the Reformation in coming weeks. When I refer to “literacy,” I mean more than Luther translating the Bible into German, and common believers having access to God’s Word. We must understand:

Suddenly, men and women could read the Bible themselves. And think for themselves. They could write, and publish, and exchange ideas. Literature, poetry, and philosophy flourished – contemporary works, and those of the past – and political ideas were exchanged. Luther became the patron saint of democracy and the Enlightenment (although he must be considered a Pre-Modern, just as his musical disciple J S Bach, two hundred years later, must be similarly regarded, theologically).

Not a Humanist, yet of the Age of Humanism; living during the Renaissance but not a typical Renaissance man, Martin Luther astonishingly bridged the worlds of total subservience to Word of God, and the absolute independence of the human spirit. The soul. By looking back, to the faith of Jesus Himself, he was able to portend the future.

Threatened in the Church’s kangaroo court in the city of Worms – knowing that torture, burning at the stake, and death awaited him – he nevertheless refused to recant any word he had written, any sermon he had delivered, any “thesis” in his list of complaints.

No.

“Here I stand,” he said. I can do no other.”

At that moment one of the great souls of Christianity, and one of the greatest figures in Western civilization, changed the course of history. Fortified by utter conviction, Luther was also secure in the fact that when when one stands by God, one never is truly alone.

Martin Luther challenged more than Rome – he challenged humankind. In the face of authority, in the face of injustice, he challenges us today.

How would we have responded? How do you respond today… because Authority and Oppression are ever present. No less threatening, even more dangerous.

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From the sublime to the ridiculous? Many readers might consider the knee-jerk reactions of football players during patriotic exercises, in relation to Luther. They kneel; he stood. Not an absurd contrast to discuss. We shall take it up.

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Protestantism has spread worldwide. More than one-fifth of South Korea, for instance, is Protestant. Here are the famous SoKo Christian singers “Golden Angels”: –

Click: Where No One Stands Alone

Truth Doesn’t Have a Side, But Does Have a Champion

9-25-17

This weekend I had a conversation with Dr Bennet Omalu. He has been in the news lately and you will know his name as the doctor who identified, named, and fights the brain injury CTE. Or the man whose challenges are upsetting applecarts of the National Football League and network television because people have become acutely aware of the virtual certainty of long-term, debilitating effects of concussions. Or that he wrote a bestselling book, the basis of a popular motion picture, Concussion, where he was portrayed by Will Smith.

You might not know, but would not be surprised, that Bennet Omalu has received tremendous, vicious, and unrelenting pushback, even persecution, because of the discoveries he has made. Specifically, because his discoveries have rung true… and because he has been an effective advocate. Not just Big Money but favorite pastimes are jeopardized.

Anyone can have an opinion, but if they keep it to themselves, they will be of no consequence in life. You can spot a fire, but if you do not raise an alarm or help extinguish it, you are complicit when a structure burns down. If you have faith, but hide it under a bushel, as Jesus painted the picture, you betray the gifts God has bestowed.

So, you might not know, but should not be surprised, that Dr Bennet Omalu’s latest battle (or a variation of continuing as Valiant-For-Truth) is a spiritual battle. It is the theme of his new book, Truth Doesn’t Have a Side.

This is not a departure for Bennet Omalu, because he has been a committed Christian all his life. The ultimate harmony of the Christian life was reinforced to me once again when I chose the lamp-under-a-bushel allusion. Jesus’ parable is found in the Gospel account of another of history’s great doctors, St Luke!

This current chapter of the amazing Dr Omalu’s fascinating life is a logical extension of all that has gone before.

“I believe I was led to diagnose CTE [Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the neuro-degenerative brain disease most often caused by trauma] by my faith. When I examined Mike Webster [the Pittsburgh Steeler player whose last years exhibited bizarre behavior] I saw me on that table.” Dr Omalu was aware that we are all made in the image of God, and that he, given other circumstances and life choices, could have been a similar victim.

He was motivated to dig deeper into “sports injuries” that were once the subject of jokes… but represent serious dangers. Football. Boxing. Rugby, Hockey. And lifelong conditions in the military and construction. Veterans and retired workers who were “punch drunk,” had “shell shock,” “took one too many to the head.” These phrases were not jokes to Dr Omalu: he saw serious problems, ruined lives, grieving families, and tragedy.

Possibly needless tragedy, he began to think. Spurred, and sustained by, his faith, he knew that naming the brain-trauma condition and conducting further research might lead him to conclude that some sports simply are not safe… no matter how many rules on the field are tweaked. Some games are not safe… no matter how many bionic helmets and industrial shoulder pads are invented.

And that many parents, first unknowingly but now – given the publicity of Dr Omalu’s discoveries – face hard choices… now aware that they commit virtual child abuse by allowing their children to participate in many contact sports.

We return again to Bennet Omalu’s faith, because he had to proceed in faith; and his faith has gotten him and his family though the tsunami of organized opposition and the multi-billion-dollar defensive playbook of the sports industry and entertainment colossus. For a while, he virtually was a lone voice.

But truth does not depend on the opinion of those who receive it.

Dr Omalu’s research, tenacity, and struggles in his profession, career path, and home life, were documented in Concussion. But the story of his faith – tested, tried, and triumphant – is brilliantly shared in Truth Doesn’t Have a Side. “My spirit is like a boat on the sea,” he says humbly, acknowledging that he trusts God and the Lord’s guidance.

The maturity of his faith is illustrated in his favorite Psalm, 27, an inspiring combination of humility and boldness upon which a believer can draw. I asked about coping with the pressures arrayed against him these days: “It is not easier now, no. But I have the elixir of daily faith exercises. I pray every morning, certainly every day; I read the Bible daily; the Spirit leads me to two chapters or passages that always speak to me in a special way. I am more conscious than ever of the Blood of Jesus!”

Dr Omalu does not speak in cliches. His message, like his whole story, is heartfelt, sincere, passionate. He chokes back tears when sharing letters he has received from people – often mothers – who have been touched by his message. And his conversation is frequently interrupted by unrestrained laughter that mirrors a joy only the believer can know.

I asked if he had an inkling, as a boy in Nigeria, that in some way or other he would grow up and change the world, even in a field he could not then know. I expected a rote answer about premonitions or ambition.

He laughed and said, “No! Not an inkling! I never imagined where I’d be!”

The world cannot imagine either where Dr Bennet Omalu might be in another 10 years. His intellectual and moral vision continuously surveys the horizons of life. “But ‘not my will, but Thine’ is how I have lived,” he says. “My middle name, given back in Africa, means ‘Life Is the Greatest Gift of All,’ and the Spirit reminds me of that every moment.

“I am not afraid to let people know I am a man of God. These days I speak to all sorts of groups – faith itself is not a religion! And so I am led to share. We must do everything we can.”

And everything in Dr Bennet Omalu’s case means in science, medicine, healthy life choices, and spirituality. For all of his crises and trials, and what the rest of us behold as a journey of boldness and bravery, he makes it all seem so logical:

“I follow the example of Jesus, who reminded us that He came for the sick, not so much the healthy!”

And he let loose another irrepressible laugh, this doctor who also ministers to the soul, the unlikely preacher who does not preach but who lives his Christian message.
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Dr Omalu’s new book can be found here:  Truth Doesn’t Have a Side

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Click: I Will Roll All Burdens Away

The Least of These

9-4-17

“Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”

Many times we have heard those words of Jesus, recorded in Matthew 25: 40a. Almost everyone knows the parable, if not the full meaning, behind the story of the Good Samaritan.

Another little-understood passage is recorded in Matthew, Mark, and John, when Jesus said that we shall “have the poor with us always.” Almost always misapplied. It was St Augustine (in his Confessions, written around the year 400) who opened the eyes of my heart to this. Jesus was not being a defeatist, that poverty is inevitable in our midst. Nor did He sanction a spirit of resignation in His followers.

No, Jesus instructed us to keep things in proportion – that we need to keep our eyes on Him while we can; that even good deeds can distract us from salvation. Further, Augustine argued, God has a certain loving plan for us, that we cultivate a spirit of charity. We must care for the least of those among us; we must practice compassion… because God Himself is Love.

Can we do that if everyone were on the same plane as we are? just as secure? comfortable? healthy? No. We should be aware, and compassionate, toward the lame, the halt, the blind. So we should be aware that these live among us.

Thoughts like these occur to us especially in days like these, after natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey.

I share here an editorial I wrote this week in response to the responses to Harvey. In the form of a memo to President Trump:

MEMO TO PRESIDENT TRUMP

The flood area in Texas and Louisiana is larger than Lake Michigan, and larger than several of our states, combined. The devastation, by several metrics, is already the worst in American history… and getting worse.

As rains cease, flood waters continue to rise. After flood waters recede, the apocalypse of ravaged homes, buildings, roads, and bridges will have been visited on those lands; as will spoilage, irretrievable ruin, pollution, deaths, and displaced persons. And, of course, massive economic challenges.

We do not need a North Korea in the news to remind us that this aftermath will resemble the devastation of a war – maybe even a lost war – across a broad swath of land and a large population.

As there has been no real precedent, there likely will be no real replication of these conditions for quite some time, so this suggestion would not be activated with every “normal” hurricane or tornado in the future.

Mr President, you should treat the entire area, when this is “over,” like a virtual war zone. Take extraordinary measures of aid and mobilization. Cooperate with locals, but also get involved as if it is a national emergency… because it is.

MAJOR emergency housing, relocation, funding, rescue, cleaning, new infrastructure. Not “normal” sandbags and box lunches and temporary shelters, but renewal as if the whole area had been flattened by an enemy. Because (damn you, “Mother” Nature) it was.

Do I suggest a “statist” response, a federal takeover of others’ functions? No – this response would fulfill one of the few legitimate Constitutional duties of the federal government.

Would cabinet secretaries and current federal departments be stretched too thin with these extraordinary “marching orders”? Borrow from your predecessor and appoint “czars” and “civilian generals” to take charge, category by category.

If Texas and Louisiana had been hit by thousands of bombs and instead of trillions of gallons of water, such a plan would be in place immediately. Move alongside the excellent local and regional (and private!) agencies… do not supplant, but partner… be forthcoming with more than checks, even blank checks, from across the continent.

In an odd way, this might be one reason why you, with your background and instincts, were elected to do.

Trump the Builder and Kelly and the military guys… could do this. Heck, it is what the US military has been doing for 15 years overseas, in places we can’t pronounce and most of us can’t find on maps – planning, building, rebuilding, paving, irrigating, cleaning, planting… even providing kids with hundreds of thousands of laptops.

Why not Texas and Louisiana?

Well, who knows what the President will do… however, already, my first impressions of his first acts are hugely positive. The same with state and local officials. And various agencies. And – not to quantify the acts being performed, because as Portia said in The Merchant of Venice, “The quality of Mercy is not strained” – the uncountable random rescuers we see on TV.

Spontaneous, courageous, sacrificial – these angels of mercy have come from down streets (or, now, rivers) or from across the country. Shoulder-deep in water, paddling makeshift crafts, hoisting old folks, pets, and children. Awe-inspiring. No less is the impressive outpouring of donations – money, food, furniture, meds.

And a hurricane – no, a tsunami – of prayers.

Despite my call for federal action, almost a military response, however, is an unshakable belief I have that is underpinned (I think) by the words of Jesus, and by Shakespeare, while I’m at it.

The government can help in these situations. As I said, however, these situations are among the few actually assigned to the federal government by the Constitution. It is our job, our duty, to respond as individuals. Our hearts, hands, resources.

One of many things I hate about Socialism and the paternalistic state is that they wean us from reliance on God; they persuade us that we should turn to the ubiquitous government for every answer; the State substitutes itself for faith, genuine cooperation, a real sense of compassion… and a true spirit of charity.

“Why do any of these things ourselves, when the government is there? Isn’t that why we pay taxes?”

We do not pay taxes in order to absolve ourselves of the (glorious) burden of helping our fellow travelers along life’s road. Thank God those basic, biblical impulses were not washed away in the flood waters of Hurricane Harvey!

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Click: He Reached Down

Eclipse

8-14-17

The Eclipse will come. And go. A magnificent coincidence of nature, it is virtually a mathematical impossibility that our earth, sun, and moon are of such sizes. The moon, occasionally in its orbit, can precisely blot out the sun, like two stacked quarters. Or that, between the sun and moon, the earth’s shadow occasionally covers, neatly and precisely, the entire moon, without even a crater rim peeking out.

Well, you know those facts, and many more, because of the Eclipse-mania that has filled the news lately. This excitement about science has itself eclipsed the concerns about possible nuclear war, government scandals, and protesters killing each other. For a moment, anyway.

I have noticed that, more and more, people marvel at scientific wonders AS scientific wonders; mathematical improbabilities; freaks of nature. Less and less do we hear average folk discern the Hand of God… or even His marvelous Fingerprints. So to speak.

That three large and ancient celestial objects can align so precisely is… chance?

Maybe so, maybe so. But skeptics would also have to believe (and they do) in other pseudo-scientific fairy tales like the Big Bang. I’ll stop there. Apart from the fact that the Big Bang Theory sounds suspiciously like a counterfeit Genesis Creation description, what – without God – was there the moment before the Big Bang? Who created matter, whether size of a proton or of a huge volume? Where does the universe end? – and what, then, is beyond it?

Secularists say that questions difficult to answer do not, in themselves, prove the existence of God. This is true. But neither does their ignorance prove the non-existence of God. Myself, I am more concerned with the Rock of Ages than the age of rocks. I know God exists because He lives in my heart; I have met the Savior.

To return to the Eclipse for a moment, I have a friend who read all the dust-up about one of the last Great Eclipses (they seem to come every 12 years ago or so, always advertised as the last of its kind we shall see for 320 years…). Anyway, she read all the warnings against looking directly at the sun; about the dangers to the eye; advice about making pinholes in cardboard, and what kind of smoked glass to look through; and so forth.

During that Eclipse, I was in California and I can still remember the sudden and very strange purplish semi-darkness that overtook, and then vanished, from San Diego. My friend in New Jersey, on the other hand, burned holes in her retina.

She read the advice about making pinholes in cardboard. She got the cardboard, she made the pinhole. Then (obviously missing the rest of the directions) she thought the pinhole was to use in order the look at the Eclipse. She held it next to her nose, squinted toward the sun in the sky. Brrr-zap.

I kid you not, as Jack Paar used to say.

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” This is not a Bible verse, but was written by Alexander Pope, who also wrote “To err is human, to forgive divine,” which also is somewhat applicable here.

In ancient barbaric cultures, eclipses caused people to panic. Wise men and priests reacted in mad ways, even ordering child sacrifices. Today, we know more about science… and, contrary to the secularists, this has drawn us closer to God, not further from Him.

The Eclipse specifically reminds us that behind the darkness is light. That truth can be hidden, but only for a while. That, whether from nighttimes or eclipses, the sun is always there. Just like rain clouds – even in the worst of storms, the sun still shines, above those dark clouds.

Yes, I mean the storms of life, not only rainstorms or strange Eclipses. We poor creatures might panic or fret or fall prey to confusion, even burning holes in our eyes. But the sun still shines; God remains steady, immovable; and He is in control.

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Click: From the Rising Of the Sun

The Matter of Unanswered Prayers

8-7-17

The sweetest things you will ever hear from Christians might be “prayer reports,” testimonies, shared experiences of answered prayer – sometimes accounts of miracles, breakthroughs, heavenly surprises. Even (in a phrase you hear a lot these days) that something has been a “God thing.”

I am not here to question whether God answers prayers. He has answered prayers that I have lifted with an anguished heart; the same with family members and friends. We have witnessed miracles.

I am one hundred per cent certain that God answers prayers. Let the skeptics be in no doubt. God promises that He will do so, and He delivers. Many times the Bible cites it in great specificity, for instance that “The fervent prayer of a righteous person avails much.” God does not lie. He cannot.

But His children – you and me – are flawed. Even after we are saved, we make mistakes and suffer from misunderstandings. Naturally! Not even the angels know all, and certainly cannot answer prayers. Poor things, they can praise, but cannot pray. That is among the attributes that make us different from angels, and special in God’s eyes.

No matter how favored, we are not little Gods. We must be “imitators of Christ” the best we can; we must seek guidance, which is one reason the Holy Spirit was sent to Earth when Jesus ascended; and we must pray. “At all times and in all places.”

Too many Christians – well-meaning, mostly, bless our hearts – believe that prayers will be answered according to our desires. Yes, yes… according to His will; but we misinterpret being “in His will.” There are preachers who teach that it is God’s will to answer our prayers as we pray them, and imply that our faith is weak when “answers don’t come.”

There are pastors who quote (as a promise of God) “mountain, be thou removed,” but have caused no earthquakes or tremors themselves. Or precious few metaphorical mountains, by the way.

There are leaders who pray among their audiences for healing, yet they wear glasses and have progressively slower steps, themselves, in their lives.

But. God answers prayer. All the time.

Except for prayers offered as insincere shows, or with unworthy knowledge of the gospel, God hears our prayers, and answers them. God promises that He will, and He delivers, as a wise man once said (whoops, that was me, a little bit earlier).

My point, though, is deadly serious, because we frequently rob ourselves of blessings. I am trying to encourage faith, not cast doubt.

God is not an errand boy, and prayer is not a magic wand.

Try to think of all the prayers you have prayed for things you want… not things you need.

If we truly trust God, in all His wisdom and love, why are we dissatisfied (even quietly, too often, discouraged) when “nothing seems to have changed?

God is a sovereign God, who loves us. Can we not understand that sometimes the answer is “No”? Sometimes His reply is “Not now.” Sometimes He says “That will be bad for you, trust Me.” Sometimes He tries to remind us that His ways are not our ways. Sometimes – He knows – our faith needs to be strengthened, and sometimes that comes through trials, further prayer, and even chastisement. (The Bible says that God exercises that only on those whom He loves. Take heart.)

How often do circumstances like a job or a relationship or finances seem “right” to desire? And our prayers about them can be summed up like: “This is clear to me, God – can’t you see it?” I have a suspicion He is seldom moved by a recitation of our deeds; and maybe less so by a list of promises we make… if the prayer is answered the way we want.

I know it is hard to operate on these truths. I have scars on my soul from the times I have come to this understanding only slowly and often kicking. However, true faith – a stronger, healthier faith – can come from dealing worthily with what we used to call unanswered prayer. All together now: “What we USED TO CALL unanswered prayer.”

Our faith will grow when we pray believing. Believing that God hears our prayers. Believing that God answers our prayers, always. And believing that in His loving care it is HIS answer, not ours, that will be our path forward.

As hard as it seems, we must learn to praise God when it is clear that OUR script was not followed by Him… but that He is the Master, the “Author Of All Creation.”

Listen, I know that prayer is a mystery. The Bible keeps us on our toes, right? Should we pray for something once, trusting? Should we pray without ceasing? Do we accept His will, but stay ready to be startled by an “answer” when we least expect it?

Yes, yes, and yes. But that is when prayer is a conversation, not a message to be left on God’s answering machine. Keep talking… and keep listening.
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In 1887 at a Dwight L Moody revival, a man stepped forward and said that he did not quite understand the gospel message, but he decided to trust God and obey God. One of the musicians, Daniel Towner, took those words and sent them to hymnodist John H Sammis. The man’s name has been lost to history – yet his transparent honesty and declaration has touched more souls since then, than have many preachers, because of the song that resulted.

Click: Trust and Obey

What It Means To Abide

7-9-17

I am reviving this message today from Ireland, where, among other peregrinations, I am visiting my daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildrem Elsie and Lewis.

I noted a few years ago that we frequently tend to think about times we have gone through, and days facing us. About short-term anxieties and losing sight of God’s long-term blessings, and His care. Headlines about good economics news… and anxiety about our finances. “Have a good week!” is the implication of sharing messages on Monday mornings, and is a common wish we speak to each other. Almost (too often) like a mantra: “Have a good day,” “Have a nice week,” even a vague “Have a good one.”

My friend Chris Orr of Derry, Northern Ireland, put these pleasantries in perspective to me a while ago. He wrote, “It is great to start the week knowing that time does not exist to God. He already has seen the end of the week. Because of that, He has no worries at all about any of His children… so why should WE worry? … and, after all, we are only given one day at a time.”

Chris’s insight made me think of the hymn Abide With Me — a musical prayer that God be WITH us, that we be blessed by the realization of His presence, every moment of every day, right now and in the limitless future.

It was written by Henry Francis Lyte in 1847, as he lay dying of tuberculosis. Once again, the Holy Spirit strengthened a person at life’s “worst” moments with strength enough for that person… and for untold generations to take hope from it. Many people have been blessed — often in profound, life-changing ways — because of this one simple hymn.

Mr Lyte died three weeks after composing these amazing words.

I urge you to watch and listen to the wonderful Hayley Westenra’s performance of Abide With Me … and then return here and read the full words to the hymn.

… and then ask God to abide with you today, and this week. And ever more.

Abide With Me

Abide with me! Fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide.
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close, ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changes not, abide with me.

Not a brief glance I beg, or passing word;
But as Thou dwelled with Thy disciples, Lord—
Familiar, condescending, patient, free—
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings,
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea—
Come, Friend of sinners, and thus abide with me.

Thou on my head in early youth did smile;
And, though, rebellious and perverse meanwhile,
Thou hast not left me, oft as I left Thee.
On to the close, O Lord: abide with me.

I need Thy presence every passing hour.
What but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?
Who like Thyself my guide and stay can be?
Through cloud and sunshine, Lord, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless;
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness.
Where is death’s sting? Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

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Click here: Abide With Me

Be Not Deceived. God Is Not Mocked.

6-26-17

Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

That familiar verse – or maybe not familiar enough – is from Galatians 6:7. The rest of the verse is: A man reaps what he sows. And another translation of this verse reads, Do not be deceived. God cannot be mocked.

This is one of the most profound verses in the Bible. In a way, a chilling spiritual threat by God Almighty. Throughout the Bible God is revealed variously as a God of Mercy and Anger and Love and Vengeance and Compassion. He is, and has been through all of humankind’s history, all those things.

As humble believers and fallible souls, sinners yet saved by Grace… the aspect of God that might concern us the most is when He acts as a God of Justice.

For it is just that we deserve punishment. We fall short. We are sinners in the presence of a Holy God. Yes; saved, we are covered by the Blood; God does not expect perfection, but He demands that we seek perfection. Yet… surely, as bold as we can be to approach the Throne of Grace, we may fear the justice of that Holy God.

What is it to “mock God”?

If you know His Commandments, but willfully rebel,
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

If you are a regular church-goer, and pay your tithes, and can list good deeds; and think that you therefore deserve Heaven,
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

If you were a fervent Christian, but have “back-slid,” yet still have good Christian friends and think your membership the local church, or your kids in Sunday School, are enough to please an “understanding” God,
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

If you are a leader; or a pastor, priest, or rabbi, with a hidden sin, yet think that influencing the community for good will tip the scales in your favor,
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

If you believe that Jesus was a great teacher but not necessarily the Son of God; or that the Bible is book of well-meaning myths and stories but with powerful lessons; if you believe this,
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

This is all to say that we humans have an infinite capacity for self-deception… but in vital cases like these, our “selves” are the only people we deceive – maybe a few weak minds around us – but certainly not God.

There is a God; He is Holy and He is just; He does not require more of you than that of which you are capable. Many people think that applies only to grief or temptation or worries… but it applies to obedience too.

Do not plan to discover loopholes or plead extenuating circumstances:
Be not deceived, God is not mocked.

In Glory we will discover the ultimate fate of ancient peoples, or faraway tribes that never hear the gospel. That has nothing to do with you. We cannot know what we cannot know, but in the meantime, in this land of many churches, and ministries on all airwaves, even atheists cannot claim never to have heard the invitation of Christ. Skeptics cannot say they never were confronted with arguments about sin. Believers in other gods have still heard the claims of Christ.

These people might maintain that, thanks to their willful cocoons, they never actually heard that Jesus is the Son of God; that He died to spare us the judgment for our sins; that He conquered death; and that belief in Him assures us eternal life. You can you say that you never heard these things in the past… except that here, at least, you have just heard them.

And if readers share this message, or reproduce these words, other folks who claim ignorance of the Good News can no longer avoid the consequences – the choice God presents.

And then, be not deceived:

Neither can God be deceived. And God does not countenance being mocked.

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Click: Abide With Me

Growing In the Valley

6-12-17

A guest blog essay this week by my old friend Pastor Gary Adams of the Kelham Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. Gary and I went to high school together in Old Tappan NJ and shared, among other things, an admiration for William F Buckley. I could quote Bill, but Gary was able to add a dead-on impersonation and the distinctive pencil-tapping of the conservative hero.

Our most memorable adventure was the afternoon we got booted from Mr LaFemina’s Economics class. Our crime? Gary made a joke, and I laughed. The teacher was actually the funniest person in the entire school, so this must have been a bad day for him. Silver lining: we were banished to the History Department Office… where I cleverly (?) engaged its chairman, Mr Newman, in a discussion of our favorite scenes in Mozart’s Magic Flute.

We turned an embarrassment into a plus; climbed from the valley to a mountaintop that afternoon. Well, sort of. This is a segue to Gary’s guest column here, inspired, he suggests, by our Monday Ministry blog last week about life’s valleys. He wrote this for his church’s newsletter, Kelham Korner, and he packed a lot of Biblical history and Christian wisdom into an e-mail’s confines, better than I did.

In last week’s blog, titled “Are You Tired of Living in the Valley?” Rick mused on mountaintop experiences and mentioned a song by Dottie Rambo, “In the Valley He Restoreth My Soul.” The song notes, “Nothing grows high on a mountain, so He picked out a valley for me.”

I had never really considered that.

Some quick research revealed that in Colorado’s mountain communities “only three non-indigenous species (not native to the area) were found thriving above nine thousand feet,” the Piñon pine, Rocky Mountain juniper, and Green Ash. Food crops that grow at high altitude include leafy greens (lettuces, spinach, collards, turnip greens); root vegetables (carrots, beets, radishes, turnips, potatoes); peas; broccoli; cauliflower; Brussels sprouts; as well as various herbs. Some growers have had limited success with varieties of corn and pumpkins and Russian tomatoes (under cover). Food crops generally grow poorly on the mountaintop. Too little moisture, harsh conditions, and limited space to plant contribute to the difficulties of growing enough on which to survive when living on top of a mountain.

Mountaintop experiences draw our attention in the Bible: Noah and his family landing the ark on top of Ararat (Genesis 8); Abraham offering Isaac and receiving God’s promise of a Lamb (Genesis 22); Aaron and Hur holding up Moses’ arms (and staff) in the battle against Amalek (Exodus 17); Moses receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 32); David buying the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (2 Samuel 24); Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18); Peter and James and John with Jesus on the mount of transfiguration (Matthew 17). All draw us into visible signs of God’s presence.

Each mountaintop experience comes surrounded by valleys. The ark rested on Ararat after the greatest worldwide disaster in history in which all but eight people died. Abraham journeyed to Moriah knowing God had called him to sacrifice his only son. Moses’ experience against Amalek came after the people of Israel were on the verge of stoning Moses for having no water.

While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments, the people of Israel were in the valley building and worshipping a golden calf, and three thousand Israelites died as a result. David bought the threshing floor to build an altar to God to stop the plague that came as a result of his foolish numbering of the people. Elijah’s confrontation with the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel came in the midst of widespread idolatry and suffering (a drought of three and a half years) and was followed by Elijah fleeing to the cave in the desert where he heard God’s still, small voice call him back to complete his service.

And Peter and James and John’s experience on the mount of transfiguration followed Jesus’ announcement of his coming betrayal and crucifixion, followed by rebuking Peter for acting in the place of Satan.

Then there was Mount Calvary.

Truly, that was a great mountaintop experience for us. We sometimes forget it was preceded by Jesus’ sweating “as it were great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44) in the garden of Gethsemane. We forget that on Mount Calvary our Savior paid the horrendous price of bearing our sin. Could Jesus have borne the sufferings of Calvary without the prayer of Gethsemane?

Just as few crops grow on the mountaintop, we cannot live on the mountaintop. Rambo’s song says, “The Lord knows I can’t live on a mountain, so He picked out a valley for me…. Then He tells me there’s strength in my sorrow and there’s victory in trials for me.”

While we might prefer the mountaintop, the conditions for growth lie in the valleys. If we were never tested, we would never know God’s strength. If we were never tried, we would never know God’s faithfulness. If we were never broken, we would never know God’s ability to remake us and mold us into His image.

Craig Curry’s song, Still, is a declaration of faith in the faithfulness of God affirming that we will still trust, we will still praise, even when we are broken and wounded and in the valley, because “we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. … to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:28-29).

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Click: Still

Are You Tired of Living In the Valley?

6-5-17

Mountaintop experiences. We yearn for them. Many of us have experienced them. Ministers promise them.

Significantly, Jesus did not promise them, not all the time; very seldom, in fact. His ministry was about meeting us where we are, as we are. When we are spiritually transformed we are not promised a transfiguration to a mountaintop except, perhaps, in poetic terms. But even then, it it clear that the Lord wants us, when called, to stay where we are, or go where He wants us, and do His work… sometimes to live and work in places far removed from any semblance of an exalted mountain top.

This will not be an invitation to exult in sorrow, as some religious extremists seek to do, thinking that self-willed suffering proves their faith. In both earthly destinations – the bright mountaintop and the dark valley – we dishonor God if we substitute residency for seeking and accepting His will.

We should be careful, naturally, if we send ourselves into dangerous overseas missions or domestic ministries – or if we send our zealous children – without fervent prayer. But my real concern today is with people who long for the “mountaintop experiences,” and, sometimes prodded by certain preachers, think they are missing God’s favor, or out of His will, if instead they continue in circumstances generally regarded as “living down in the valley.”

You know it… and probably have felt it at times. Never able to get out of financial challenges. Unlucky in love. Frustrated at work. Suffering aches and pains.

“Is such a life a good witness, to the world, of what a Christian’s life is?”

Maybe.

Actually, I will add to that. It has little relation to what a Christian’s life is.

What the world looks at – what God looks at – is not where you are but how, as a Christian, you deal with it. If you are there for a reason, if He has given you a task or even a burden, you insult God Almighty by lusting all the time for that shiny resort up on yonder mountain.

Dottie Rambo wrote one of her most profound gospel songs with the following lyrics:

When I’m low in spirit, I cry, “Lord lift me up, I want to go higher with Thee!”
But nothing grows high on a mountain, so He picked out a valley for me.

Then He leads me beside still waters, Somewhere in the valley below.
And He draws me aside to be tested and tried, In the valley He restoreth my soul!

Dark as a dungeon, the sun seldom shines, And I question: “Lord why must this be?”
But He tells me there’s strength in my sorrow, And there’s victory in trials for me!

Then He leads me beside still waters, Somewhere in the valley below.
And He draws me aside to be tested and tried, In the valley He restoreth my soul!

Yes, more things grow in the world’s valleys than on the highest mountains’ tops. And that can include you and me, growing. I have been in both environments, literally and figuratively. Oh, there is beauty, and great perspectives, from the heights; and we should never disdain the upward trail.

But in the meantime, the valleys can be special places.

Let us remember – a propos the valleys of life – that even the most horrible valley described in God’s Word, the “Valley of the Shadow of Death,” is not a place from which our loving Father promises to spare us, no!

Psalm 23 assures us, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me.

We can not avoid such places in our lives. We can not escape such moments in our “walks.” Rather, we should trust God; lean on the Everlasting Arms. He does not promise to find detours for us. He promises to be with us, protect us… and comfort us, when we are in those dark valleys.

When Jesus gave the Great Commission, neither did He send His disciples to the mountaintops of all the world, but to all the world.

One more perspective, based on personal experiences. I have been on mountaintops – high above the “pine line” in the Rockies, with friends after Christian Writers conferences in Estes Park. We behold the vistas and have been moved to sing, “This Is My Father’s World.” Moving. I have also been so high in the Alps that nothing grows but lichen, that moss-like composite of fungus and algae (yes, this IS my Father’s world! Who could imagine that hybrid organism, not a plant?) – wondrous and mysterious and ancient. Yet… moss-like.

At the other extreme, to find something indigenous, think of the beautiful, fragrant, colorful Lily. “Of the Valley,” as it is known and loved.

There is victory in trials, the song reminds us. If mountaintop people never have trials, they can not lean on the promises of God; or savor His protection; or experience His sweet comfort.

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Click: In the Valley He Restoreth My Soul

What Does God See in You?

5-22-17

The worst prayer – the worst kind of prayer – that a Christian can pray begins from the attitude of “Forgive me, a poor sinner”; or “Unworthy!” or “Lord, I am not fit to approach Your Throne of Grace”…

We do need forgiveness, all the time. We are poor sinners. We are unworthy and not deserving of being in His presence. These things are true…

Except for the factor of Jesus. The Person of Jesus. We are less than worthy, but we are more than conquerors.

I do not contradict myself although, like Walt Whitman, I sometimes say, “Very well, I contradict myself!” But not as to what the Bible teaches – the core of Christianity. Above, I said that prayers offered with those ATTITUDES are mistaken. If we see ourselves in those relational positions, we reject the Truths of God to whom we pray. We insult the work of Jesus on the cross. We insult the Holy Spirit of God, who is sent to be our Helper, our Guide, our Counselor.

What do people think – what do Christians think – God sees when He looks at them?

Through history, many Christians have thought, hoped, and operated on the belief that He sees our good deeds. He does… but scarcely the totality of what He sees.

Many Christians take comfort that He sees their charitable activities, missions works, volunteer efforts, even the merciful acts performed. Surely the case… but, I submit, not the main things He looks for.

There are Christians who are confident, even in spiritual modesty, that their sacrifices and their service, their sweet spirits of forgiveness, please God. Of course these “fruits” please God… but we are told that such things are as dirty rags to a Just and Perfect God if we believe that they guarantee our home in Eternity once God sees them.

The Bible is full of believers who were at the other extreme of spiritual modesty: presumption. We know of “whited sepulchres”; of show-off givers; of those who pray loudly in the temple to be noticed; of hypocrites and vipers and wolves in sheep’s clothing. Of these types God will say… “Be gone, I never knew you! Depart from Me!”

So, what does God see when He looks down (or up, or over, or through) us? Many Christians will say, “He looks at our hearts.”

Yes, He does look at our hearts. He knows us better than we know ourselves. I happen to believe that if there is a choice – however, this is not a choice in life – but if there had to be one direction of “knowing the heart,” we should desire more that that we seek after God’s own Heart, and fear that He sees ours. Which is the point of this message.

Yes, when God sees us, He sees and knows our “hearts” – our thoughts, motives, desires. But that is STILL not what sees first, last, and most important when He looks at us.

I want us all to be reminded, and take comfort, and seize for dear life, the spiritual truth that when God looks at a Christian, a believer, a Christ-follower, those who believe in their hearts that Jesus is the Son of God, and confess with their mouths that God raised Him from the dead…

And when we are in that proper relationship with God… He does not see our deeds or our merciful works or our sacrifices or our forgiveness or our offerings or loud prayers or our memorials and names on church buildings or seminary dorms…

He sees these things, and He sees, yes, our hearts.

But what God sees first and, I believe, most importantly – He sees the Blood.

When we accept and confess Jesus, we are “covered in the Blood.” As surely as its foreshadowing – the blood on the doorposts of the pesach lambs, so the Angel of Death would Pass Over – the believers in Christ are shielded from judgment.

Those who truly believe on the Saviour can be free of guilt and shame and fear. Because when God sees you… He sees your elder brother Jesus, His only-begotten Son. The precious Blood was shed in order that God’s judgment would pass over your sins and shortcomings and failings. “Do not fear,” as Jesus so often said to people.

And the precious Blood also completes what you started, in faith and hope at your best times, in areas of charity and sacrifice and forgiveness. Jesus “finished” many things on the cross, among them the spiritual assignments we accepted when we first believed.

Thank God we did not conceive these things in our puny minds, but by the Great Commission He would have us undertake. We cannot really do them except by the teachings and directions of the Christ. We cannot find the required strength and wisdom but by His Holy Spirit.

Hallelujah, when He sees us, God rather sees the Person and the Blood of Jesus. What does God see in you? He sees the Blood covering you, and the Christ in you. The proper relational understanding of God, and the confidence we can gain, should give us confidence in the ATTITUDE of the prayers we raise to God!

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Click: Come Thou Fount of Blessing / Nothing But the Blood

The Crisis of Bullying

5-8-17

I recently talked to a friend about the issue of bullying, which has become a big issue in our society and a major concern of contemporary life.

Whether bullying is more prevalent these days, or only more reported and discussed, is to me an open question. If incidents with kids are in fact more numerous, I ask the same questions I do about autism: Why now? Why so common? Does it merely have a new name? Is there something in the environment that precipitates these things?

There is a question, too, of whether the “bullying” issue among kids is a matter of rougher behavior and victimization; a culture of wimpiness that has fastened itself on American life, its children in particular; a predilection to raise fusses over things formerly overlooked… or is something in the middle of those triangular points.

Autism and the alphabet-soup of children’s emotional disorders, if caused by factors in the environment, will someday be discovered and solved. Bullying, such as we understand it, might also be blamed on the environment – but its case would be more in the moral environment. Insensitivity… video games… violent entertainment… dissolution of the nuclear family… lost values?

My friend and I decried a common response, especially among some Christians, to advise children to “turn the other cheek,” to love the bully until the offensive attitude adjusts itself. That is, to make these responses automatic, even autonomic. Ignore causes, outcomes, right, or wrong: just yield.

Every case is different, of course, but since Jesus was quoted here, His famous admonition should be seen in context. “Do not respond in kind,” a paraphrase, can be God’s will – no; we can agree it is God’s will – in certain situations. There are many, many times we need to show the world Christ’s love; how we are different; what new wine fills our old wineskins.

We are to be, in the words of Thomas à Kempis, imitators of Christ.

But, without composing a concordance of verses here, we recognize that sincere and observant Christians can both support and resist non-violence. There are biblical injunctions against anger, revenge, and unforgiveness. And scriptural admonitions – in fact, actions of our Holy Role Model – to strike back, put people in their place, overturn tables in temple courtyards.

Jesus scolded Peter to sheath his sword against Roman soldiers in the garden, yet also said in Luke 12: 34-36: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.”

Is God intentionally ambiguous about rules for our lives? Does every commandment have a negation elsewhere in scripture? Is the Lord a God who hedges His bets?

No ambiguity in the word of God. No negations in scripture, but rather confirmations and supporting verses. The Lord does not bet; rather, we take a deadly chance when we ignore of deny His word.

When we reach times when we fall short of true understanding, even to matters that confound us or that have caused schisms in the past… I believe that God intends those junctures to be teachable moments, for us to search the scriptures, to pray and seek wisdom. Then, to pray more.

Short, perhaps, of those extreme spiritual questions, are matters whose exegesis seem easier. Context. Which also prompts us to “empty ourselves,” try to substitute God’s wisdom for our own prejudices – our own natures – and dig deep in the Word.

Back to bullying. And to transition, as my friend and I did, to larger challenges that face contemporary Christians. Kids often are bullied these days for their lunch money, their sneakers, or their faces – meaning, mindless hatred. Christians, the church at large, are being bullied too. It is not new, and was in fact foretold (one might say “promised”) often by prophets and Christ. Prejudice; opposition; persecution.

But it is different today – also a feature of the End Times – and it requires different responses by Christians and the church. In some instances there are no cheeks to turn. Believers must stand their ground, and even be aggressive when defending ourselves and the faith. And we must positively disciple and evangelize.

I argue that Mohatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King practiced non-violence as political acts as much as spiritual acts. In any event the results were political, surely consistent with their hopes and dreams. Properly so.

In the 19th century there was a term, Muscular Christianity. It did not mean punching non-believers in the face; it meant knowing Jesus and making Him known. It meant not being ashamed of the Gospel. It meant transferring one’s faith into action: being a Christian every day in every way. Representing Christ. And defending His church.

These qualities are in retreat today. Like recessive genes, the abandonment of such traits surely will lead to mutation and death. Not of God’s Truth, which is everlasting to everlasting, but of His body – the church on earth. And, no less, our nation, our families, our souls.

America is a Christian nation, settled by Christians, claimed for Christ. Affirmed in foundational documents. Called so by the Supreme Court (1892). Should we proscribe immigration by other faiths? No. Should we persecute other faiths? No.

However – like people who buy homes near airports and then file lawsuits seeking noise reduction – neither should people of other faiths proscribe, persecute, and exercise prejudice against Christians. Every week in the news we hear of government edicts, court orders, and media pogroms against Christians. Not “people of faith,” because Muslims and of course atheists routinely are coddled, but Christians.

The body of believers – the remnant? – in the Year of our Lord 2017 need to carry “swords”; to risk “variance” with family, friends, and neighbors; and not submit to being bullied.

Do we choose to defend ourselves? Pray for wisdom. Must we defend God, His people, His church? Yes. Push back against the cultural and spiritual bullies. Overturn some tables in the temple courtyard!

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Taped at the Wartburg Castle, Eisenach, Germany, where Luther translated the Bible from Latin; and the birthplace of J S Bach.

Click: Stand Up For Jesus

May Day

5-1-17

Recently we noted that throughout history, pagan observances and celebrations often were co-opted by the Roman church, roughly conterminous with the expansion of the faith. And when expansion was not tractable in lands or with peoples, organized-Christianity found ways to incorporate the names of tribes’ festivals, or certain practices, or pagan gods with new names. Theories abound about the word “Easter,” for instance, and the calendar-date of Christmas.

Such traditions of organized religion better can be filed under “marketing” more than theology; ecclesiology more than evangelism.

Christendom since the Reformation has split in two ways in this matter too. Generally, Protestant peoples of northern Europe have revived Springtime pagan observances, often calling, and sometimes believing, that they are mere celebrations of Renewal, Nature, and Fertility. Holidays run the gamut from countryside dances to dedications of animals, seeds, and celebrants’ resolutions for the year ahead. Catholic lands often have named or invented saints who overlook the prospects of farmers and planters; Harvest Festivals in advance.

From back in hazy pre-history, May 1 was the date agreed upon as the appropriate day, regarded as the beginning of Spring (advent of Summer in some ancient cultures). It is roughly halfway between the Spring equinox and the Summer solstice.

The fertility goddess Maia, a figure in both Greek and Roman mythology, inspired the name “May” and other related words in many languages. Springtime celebrations of fertility were common to all societies. Singing, dancing, special pastries, and the presence of flowers, as in the May Pole, were common to all. So were bonfires, whose smoke was deemed to have protective properties. Faces were sometimes washed in the day’s morning dew.

In Nordic lands, Walpurgisnacht festivals still are held – nighttime activities including bonfires, wreaths of flowers, planting of seeds, and burning of branches, lending a pagan veneer that even an attempt to retroactively honor a patron saint cannot dispel (Saint Walburga is claimed to have introduced Christianity to German lands… but history bestows that honor on St Patrick). In countries like Estonia and Poland, May 1 – Walpurgis Fest – is a national holiday. In Germany, people still gather around bonfires and dance around May Poles festooned with Spring flowers.

In Ireland and nations of Celtic origin, “Beltane” is honored still, even in sight of ancient churches. Neopagans and wiccans have revived the old practices, often adding incantations. Italians harken to pre-Christian days, celebrating Rebirth in its larger senses as “Calendimaggio,” but retaining pagan rites of the ancient Etruscans and Ligures… whose languages are lost to us, but whose superstitions endure.

In Catholic lands, statues of Mary frequently are adorned with wreaths of Spring flowers. (She is the “Queen of May,” to the uninitiated.) In Britain, Morris dancing, decorating May Poles with garlands of flowers, and such outdoor rituals date back to Anglo-Saxon fertility fetes when May was called the “Month of Three Milkings.”

There is another May Day with which we are all too familiar. Known alternatively as International Workers Day, many people assume its own origins are also shrouded in the musty past and in obscure lands, or at least as a holiday of Socialists and Communists, the progeny of Karl Marx or Soviet conspirators.

The red May Day, however, was inspired by an event in America, as recently as 1886, thereafter adopted by Bolsheviks around the world. Disaffected radicals – workers and farmers, anarchists and socialists – agitated for a national strike in 1886, but in Haymarket Square, Chicago, things turned ugly when a bomb was thrown by persons unknown. When the smoke cleared, police and strikers were dead, many injured. The radical Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW or “Wobblies,” was founded there soon afterward. The Haymarket Riot inspired Communists to commemorate it with labor’s May Day.

From the Soviets’ Moscow to Beijing to Havana to Pyongyang to Harvard and Berkeley, that traditional has continued.

The other May Day we know about is the international distress signal. It is only about a century old, displacing wireless telegraphy’s SOS soon after it was first implemented by the sinking Titanic. “May Day” was the vocal shorthand, as the Morse Code was superseded, for emergencies, probably the transliteration of the French “m’aider” – “help me.”

I am not sure whether towns and schools, in the US anyway, have May Day events any more – at least not like when I was a schoolkid, when there actually were dances around Maypoles, threading garlands of flowers; and assigned essays about Spring, and we were allowed to mention God. Now, in this brave new world that is realizing the dreams of Socialists, from Europe on the brink to major forces in the US, every day is May Day.

But the May Day that has the most relevance – that is, immediate import – to Patriots and Christians, is the international Distress Signal.

We are indeed adrift and in distress. As a society, as a culture, we need help. We need to be rescued. “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14).

IFs aplenty. We need revival, but we cannot pray for God’s magic wand. He has never worked that way. We cannot effect it without the Holy Ghost; but God will not bring revival if we do not repent.

Unlike the distress call that went out when the Titanic was sinking, we have the ability to influence our rescue. We can save our lives as He heals our land. But May Days will end sometime. Help us, Lord.

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Click: Help Me

What If the Easter Story Were True?

4-17-17

And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

Easter is complicated enough in its significance without us poor humans festooning it with spiritual irrelevancies and celebratory ornaments like bunnies and painted eggs. The early church, which practiced forms of marketing, perhaps named it Easter after pagan fertility rites (Springtime; the rising sun in the east; the fecundity represented by rabbits and eggs); perhaps after the Egyptian fertility goddess Isis or Mesopotamian fertility goddess Ishtar; perhaps the Anglo-Saxon tribes’ goddess of the dawn, Eostre. Names, not substance, of course.

Easter is at once the densest theological concept, its history and meaning easy to reject by the skeptic; and the easiest message to accept by the lost, the hurting, the confused, the hungry, the searching souls of humanity.

That is to say, the truth of the gospel is audacious in its simplicity. Too good to be true, we are tempted to think. It is welcomed, and has been for 2000 years, by all but the hard-hearted and stiff-necked.

It takes more hatred and more hostility to dismiss the gospel, than it requires an open mind and an open heart to believe.

It requires more skepticism to reject the incarnation, Jesus’ ministry and atonement as concentrated in the events of Holy Week, than the faith required to believe it – the countless prophecies precisely fulfilled; the accounts of many eyewitnesses; the life-changing testimonies… Well, I am not writing to convince skeptics today, but rather to be persuasive with those who identify as Christians.

The world asks, “What if the Easter story is not true?”

To contemporary Christians, I ask:

What if the Easter story IS true?

Can people see a change in your life?

Do you go into the whole world – even just your neighborhood – proclaiming the Gospel?
Are you a “fisher of men,” as Christ commended we become?

Can the world clearly see you as “born again,” living a new life?

Because there are laws, we render unto Caesar those things that are Caesar’s… but do you render unto God the things that are God’s?

Do you display the Fruits of the Spirit? More, do you seek the Gifts of the Spirit? Do you pick and choose among Christ’s commands and God’s blessings?

Do you love?

Do you forgive?

God became flesh and dwelt among us. He taught wisely, but did not come to earth primarily to teach. He performed miracles, but perhaps largely to confirm His divinity. The details of His life, as we have said, fulfilled prophecy to levels of mathematical improbability… confirming to a doubting world that He was indeed the Messiah.

Jesus did mighty works modestly and He did loving acts mightily. He performed miracles, raised the dead, healed the sick, read minds, walked on water, produced food for the hungry, calmed the wind and troubled waters. What manner of man was this?

As Emmanuel – God-with-us – He emptied Himself of His divinity when He chose. He wept for the lost. He allowed Himself to be ridiculed, rejected, betrayed, persecuted, accused, tortured, jailed, humiliated, killed.

Sacrificial lambs never did have an easy time of it.

We should see the events of Holy Week not as rituals Christ had to endure, as pages of a script. They were the mightiest of His miracles! To do all that for us – when He could have waved away enemies and soldiers, even Satan – were mighty miracles. Even mightier, to a lowly observer like me, was forgiving those who did these things during His last earthly days. Forgiving me, like Paul, chief among sinners; dying for us all while we were yet sinners.

Indeed, What manner of man is this?

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Click: He Lives

The Time of the Songbirds is Come

4-3-17

A guest essay by one of my favorite writers, Leah C Morgan

Winter serves its purpose necessary for cycles of life and growth. Including sorrow and darkness. But no one mourns its departure. There are no weeping farewells, no fierce clinging to its coattails. Winter’s last cold breath could easily be mistaken for a communal sigh of relief.

But Spring. . .

Spring is like hope, often suppressed by doubt and crushed by fear before finally bursting out of the barrenness with such lush beauty we would think it audacious if it were a woman crossing the landscape.

Or a dream on the horizon.

But Spring is so universally pined after, we allow her to paint the town in pastels and festoon it with flowers. To declare a new season and prophesy a resurrection of all dead things. We are so in need of warmth, we want to believe.

Snow comes just as we’re tempted to forget coats and gloves; and we’re buried again in self-doubt, certain that winter is eternal. And that second chances, green buds, and fresh starts are myths.

Then the smallest patch of sunlight shines its way indoors, warming our faces. A song of warbled notes reaches our ears, and the perfume of living things wends its way to our senses. Our hearts thaw. Something flutters within and pushes its way forward like a new beginning.

And there we are against all odds, in spite of the dead branches and brown grass, joining the parade, waving banners, and getting all caught up in the longing. We believe in the getting up, in the rising again.

If forgotten bulbs buried beneath the frozen ground can resurrect their remembrance, and dormant plants survive long months of deprivation, if distant birds are spurred to make lengthy migrations in expectation of better days, and insects lie quietly in wait for a feast about to commence, how can the human heart settle for dearth? The very bowels of the earth offer up an invitation to rejoice. To hope. To muster up enough courage to try again.

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Spring is the season to put away the wool and furs, the weighty things that make for despair.

It is the reminder that buried things are not always dead things, and that dead things can live again.

Spring is the occasion to pray for the miraculous, for rebirth and resurrection. It is the opportunity to enjoy perpetual youth. Nothing is so young as new life, and new life can sprout in the faith of a fertile mind, coming to life in a fresh idea. It can spring up in the purpose of heart, taking the shape of brilliant creativity.

Buried talents, forgotten intentions, failed attempts – they all want to be born again, and Spring makes the yearning reasonable. If daffodils can fan out their pretty bonnets after keeping still for a year, what unexercised muscle of faith might be stretched out in the light of understanding?

The time for understanding has come. Flamboyant Spring steps forward on a pale, monochromatic stage to pantomime the Gospel in living color. The Old Man Winter is past, and now a light shines in the darkness, its transformative power producing new life. The fields and forests are born again, their naked knolls and branches clothed in glorious wardrobes. They develop, mature, producing fruit and dropping seeds. The seeds are buried, left to die and decay, before shedding their form to be resurrected, coming forth from the ground in a new body.

“Sown in weakness, raised in power” (I Corinthians 15:43). How we begin is not how we’re destined to remain.

A sweet, scented breeze is blowing, whistling a melody. And a voice that sounds a lot like Spring sings:

My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.

For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;

The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land;

 The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the tender grape give a good smell. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away” (Song of Solomon 2:10-13).
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Click: Rise Again

This Should Be Your Favorite Bible Verse

3-27-17

The title I have given to our thoughts here is, on its face, presumptuous. I do not mean to dislodge anyone from their verse or passage of personal affection or wellsprings of faith and strength. Nor is there is there any reason to intrude on the essential symbolic and subjective value of a Bible passage any person holds dear.

In a larger sense, objective rather than subjective, I have often held that Red-Letter Bibles contain unconscious irony. “The words of Jesus in red,” the title page reads. But in a true sense the entire Bible should be printed in red type, no? Every word is inspired by God; dictated, as it were, by the Holy Spirit.

“All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work” (II Timothy 3:16 NLT).

Another pitfall in addressing “favorite” verses, or being too mechanical about them, is my recollection of a youth group getaway when I was young. A few of us snuck off to the chapel one night to read the Bible together. We had fervor, but we had nervousness too. We went around the circle, reading our favorite passages. I prayed for God to back me up, and trusted to share whatever page’s verse I opened to. It turned out to be one of the interminable lists of “begats.” Not only endless and, in that context, thin of relevance… but I scarcely could pronounce any of the ancient Hebrew names in the genealogy.

There is the story, too, of the businessman who had escaped debts by declaring bankruptcy. He cited the Bible as his inspiration – that he opened the Book one night, pointed his finger at random, and saw it was on the words “Chapter 11.”

But to be serious, John 3:16 is often claimed as a favorite verse, and surely it is a foundation stone of our faith, or the essence of the gospel message. Other verses and passages sum up the law; or the doctrine of Grace; or the distinction between works and faith; or promises about healing, salvation, or eternal life.

At one point in my life, enduring measures of distress, I heard the passage about God feeding even the sparrows; three times in one day, from three different sources – radio, TV, and a friend. That day I knew that God was shouting, not whispering, a reminder of that promise to me. And that has become a favorite passage.

But my suggestion of a verse that could join every believer’s list of favorite verses is what Jesus said on the cross as He breathed His last earthly breath:

“It is finished.”

The verse demands more attention than most of us give; and it deserves more contemplation than most of us exercise.

Some teachers explain that it was Jesus’s way of saying was dying. Like, “I am finished.” To graft a Message sort of street-parlance contemporary version, “I’m outta here.” Please forgive the unplugged spirituality – or in evitable worldly devolution of the Bible’s sacred aspects. But, Jesus was not saying at that moment that He “was finished” as a man, or even as Emmanuel, God-with-us. Neither was He saying that His earthly ministry was finished, although this is closer to the implications of His words.

“It.”

What was “it” that was finished?

Especially, now, during Lent, as we should be looking forward to the significance of Holy Week, it helps if we think of the Easter season – the rejection, suffering, sacrifice, death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord – as the nexus of history. Before then, everything looked forward to the Jesus moments. God’s love; God’s forbearance of His people’s rebellion; God’s commandments; God’s wrath; God’s forgiveness; God’s laws and requirements of sacrifices; God’s miracles; God’s prophesies; God’s promises, ultimately, of a Saviour.

Then came the events, foretold uncountable times in written and oral history by many and diverse writers in prose and poetry and song, looking toward the plan God always had – the salvation of humankind. The means to be reconciled to God. The only way to avoid damnation for our sins. The only path to communion with the Holy God. The plan of forgiveness. “It” is the gospel message.

All of humankind’s history turned during those days… centered, as it were, on the cross itself, literally where His heart was. All Heaven and Creation listened, and all of us, afterward, hang on those words, even as He hung on the cross.

Or… we should hang on those words. Favorite Bible verse of ours or not, the meaning of “It is finished” can be cherished as the perfect synopsis of the Bible’s gospel message – the entire history of God and man in one phrase.

Because with His sacrificial death, “It” was more than the ending of His ministry — No more healings? No more miracles for the Palestinian locals? His teachings were finished? All these things were true, but He had already promised that the Holy Spirit would come, enabling and empowering believers in Christ to do great things as He had done. However, none of those factors is the “it” Jesus meant.

Returning to Red Letter Bibles, I will note that older translations have verbs in italics, in many passages. This is because original texts wrote of events that HAD taken place, or WERE of earlier prophesies, but written in the present tense. Not “were,” for instance, but “are.” Or “will be.” Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. It could be confusing to readers, but the original texts spoke of spiritual matters of their times, or earlier times, in the present and future tenses.

In the same manner also, Jesus did not live – He lives. As my friend Rev Gary Adams of Kelham Baptist Church in Oklahoma City has pointed out, “tetelestai,” the word for “It is finished,” grammatically is the perfect tense. Completed action! Jesus dies for us every day… present tense. And we must die to self, and live for Him, every day.

When Christ said “It is finished,” he was not referring to a chapter that closed when He breathed His last earthly breath. He means that at that moment that a new chapter begins. A chapter about each one of us, chapters in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

Comprised of many favorite verses!
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Click: It Is Finished

Two Hands, One Heart

2-27-17

There was a wise saying that was popular in the time of the Jesus generation, the Born-Again movement, and I am a great believer in it, as in most every example of bumper-strip theology. “God gave us two ears and one mouth! Try listening!”

A wise aphorism. A life lesson. Indeed, a rule to live by. I stink at math, but I understand the irresistible logic of this saying. Two ears, one mouth.

A friend recently employed a variation of this. Whether it is an old saying I never heard before (very possible) or new to this clever friend, its logic is also irresistible and powerful.

“God gave us all two hands, two eyes, two ears… but one heart. That makes it our job to find that other heart, to complete the picture.”

That can have poetic and romantic, even mystical, applications, but also spiritual relevance. Just as the actor-comedian-author Orson Bean, a late convert to Christ (and, incidentally, Andrew Breitbart’s father-in-law) said, “We were all born with a virtual hole in our middles, in our hearts, by God’s design, because the Holy Spirit was sent to fill it.”

And nothing other than God’s love can soothe our hearts; nobody other than Jesus can save our hearts; nothing else than the Holy Ghost can fill our hearts.

In this world, we are ultimately lonely people in a lonely place. It does not have to be so, but often it is. Finding love is rather a rare thing. Facebook unintentionally teaches that we can have a lot of “Likes” and “Friends,” but there is no category of “Loves” in its galleries. On dating sites, profiles ask “Who I seek,” but not “Who I need.”

I realize that every person, especially the emotionally needy and vulnerable, would be reluctant to expose their neediness.

On the other hand – and to continue the spiritual aspect of these common but seldom-discussed truths – we humans are different in uncountable, sometimes radical ways. Different sexes, different colors, different talents, different sizes, different values and attitudes…

But there is one common element. We share one thing, whatever other things are different —

We all need a Savior. We all are sinners. Each of us… has one heart. And like the poetic, romantic, mystical imperatives to which my friend referred, our spiritual hearts are lonely too. Even pagan savages look to heaven; inchoately desiring something greater in life; and – as do the most “civilized” amongst us – instinctively know that a greater power exists.

Paganism does not stop there. And how sad that there are so many superstitious and secular and paganistic people with whom we interact every day. Not in far-off jungles, but our neighbors, in this land of many churches.

But that “greater power” does not have to be a mystery, as many people make it. He is Almighty God, Creator of the universe and lover of our souls. He revealed Himself, becoming flesh and dwelling amongst us. When Jesus ascended to heaven, He said that it was better that He leave, because One would follow who would be the Comforter; and that greater things we will do when the Spirit comes.

Into our hearts.

In that way, we find that “second” heart; our hearts are joined as one with the Lord’s. In the same manner as the promise that whenever two or more are gathered in His name He will be in our midst, that union of our lonely hearts with His perfect heart… makes us complete.

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Back when I was Director of Product Development at Youth Specialties, I conceived a project wherein some performers at our Youth Workers Conventions could work on two print and video projects for us. One would be for them to write new music, or least new performance versions, of classic hymns and gospel songs. The other would be to devise lessons and demonstrations for worship leaders and church music directors.

Too often, contemporary worship leaders would sing random songs, randomly repeating lines, aimlessly segueing to other music. Sometimes this was blamed on “Holy Spirit leading” but mostly it was lack of discipline… spiritual discipline. Chris Tomlin was great at intentionally building ascending keys and tempos, knowing when to pause for prayer, and be sensitive to worshipers’ reactions, and so forth.

For various reasons that never happened while I was at YS. Some singers and bands subsequently have done these things in published formats and in seminars. I am not claiming to have planted any seeds, at all, but I am grateful for the discussions I had with Chris, with David Crowder, and with Paul Baloche.

Paul is truly gifted as a composer, writer, musician, and worship leader. His ability to communicate his inspirations is impressive. Maybe his most beloved worship song is “Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord.” Listen in the context of today’s essay.

Click: Open the Eyes of My Heart, Lord

Patience and Timing, Endangered Species

2-13-17

I heard about one of those Management Consultants who conduct weekend seminars, telling a story about his advice to a trainee.

“There are two… essential… things… never to forget…” and he paused some more – “when you set out… to navigate your… career.”

Annoyed by the strangely lugubrious rollout, the trainee insisted, “Yes? YES? Well???”

The instructor replied, “Patience.”

Point taken. But the trainee pressed on. “What’s the other thing???”

Before he could finish the question, the instructor interrupted: “Timing.”

Good advice, if we think about it. (By the way, you just saved two whole days, and a $300 registration fee, for the seminar!) (You’re welcome.) Like most good advice, the best source is not a Management guru, or even Life’s Experiences, but the Bible.

The famous verse – so famous that even irreligious people often quote it during their marriage ceremony – from I Corinthians 13, offers “patience” as the first of the words that define Love: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” Wow. “Patience” leads the list.

A verse we all should remember when things are wrong, or insecure, or bleak, or threatening, or dangerous… and we fret – “Be still and know that I am God.” How much simpler can an assurance of God be? My daughter Heather meditates on Psalm 46:10 by parsing its words individually: each phrase brimming with meaning.

“Be.” “Be still.” “Be still and know.” “Be still and know that I am.” “Be still and know that I am God.” Thus comes spiritual patience.

Then there is the closely related virtue, a sense of timing. Many of the Israelites’ woes, and their leaders’ mistakes, came from disobeying God’s directions, being impulsive, jumping the gun, so to speak.

Many Christians do this from mistaken confidence that they have God’s Will; are full of the Spirit; when often it is old-fashioned Pride.

Peter walked on water as his Savior did and instructed him to do… until he looked down. Impulsive.

Of all the Apostles, I identify the most with Peter, I must admit. Impulsive, sometimes too eager to please God, when all He asks is obedience. The “other side of that coin” concerns Peter, again, and those who were told to “wait” for the Disciple to replace Judas. They were impatient… they substituted THEIR timing for God’s… and drew straws. A guy named Matthias was chosen.

I describe him that way because we never hear of him again in the Bible. He was chosen by 11 men holding an election. But the Holy Spirit, in God’s timing, would APPOINT the successor: Paul.

Peter was an impulsive, bumbling, flawed follower of Jesus. After swearing he would never do so, he denied Jesus three times, leading to the crucifixion. But in God’s timing, Peter soon became a wise, inspirational, strong leader. A great Manager, in fact, of the early church, it could be said. On his confession of Jesus as Lord, the church had its foundation.

What changed? Obedience to God’s timing. In that timing, baptism played a role in the step-by-step timing we are to obey, ourselves. When Peter and the Disciples had been baptized in the Spirit – and as other converts were to experience in a tidal wave of belief after Pentecost – the promise of Zechariah 4:6 was confirmed: “Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit, said the Lord of hosts…”

Jesus Himself had no earthly ministry we are told about, for the first 30 years of His life. Then he was baptized in the River Jordan, according to God’s timing. The Holy Spirit came upon Him, and His heavenly ministry commenced.

Patience is a virtue. And timing? Always remember to set your clocks and watches to God-Standard Time.

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Click: Waiting On the Lord

“Hey – I Know That Guy!”

2-6-17

This is something of a continuation of last week’s essay. I seldom attempt this, reckoning that for most people, one week’s worth of my opinions is quite enough on any subject. But circumstances, and some feedback, illuminated the reflections, so to speak, about friendship. I hope that all the flavor is not chewed out of this gum.

At the risk of revealing some repellant form of insularity I might suffer, I have the opinion that despite increased travel, more frequent communication, easier social interaction… the average person has fewer friends – true, intimate, close friends – than ever in years past. I suppose there is way to ascribe logic to this state of affairs, a reasonable explanation, but that is not to avoid regretting it.

The Pace of Life must bear a large share of the blame, if this is true; so the contemporary world’s cornucopia of blessings surely is mixed. In fact it is on almost matters.

These little bubbles we create for ourselves – last week I referred to the temptation for believers, for example, to grow more insulated from the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, as the Bible lists – these bubbles seem to us secure, womb-like. But bubbles burst. All the time.

This week I was reminded of the urge – no, the necessity – of Christians to engage the World. It is frequently our lot; and we can never be sure whether circumstances are orchestrated by God, or not, to test our Witness.

A friend (though casual) on Facebook (where else?) commented (in 2017, many of us seldom converse, but we frequently Comment) on a political thread (what else?). To some perceived outrage by a president I will not name, she commented, simply, “Jesus.” By her own subsequent admission, she is not a Christian, and I perceived of what she wrote to be a curse. (By her subsequent attestation, she said she uttered it in the same manner a Christian might. I was not persuaded that she was praying; and, besides, I have heard plenty church-goers take the Lord’s name in vain. In any event, obviously there was no reason to continue, in private or public, without voicing skepticism about her intention being reverent.)

I yielded to the temptation to refer to her own faith tradition, which I had suspected but did not know, and cite the Second Commandment. But that hinges on the technicality of whether the utterance “Jesus” in that context is an imprecation. A further technicality (not in my friend’s case, but among many people) might be the loophole – “Those shalt not take the Name of the Lord the God in vain”… but taking the name of another person’s Lord or God in vain is okay.

It is not an irrelevant matter, because it leads us to wonder (have you ever wondered?) why people do not yell, “O Buddha!” when they are angry; or “Con-fucius!” when they stub a toe. Never “Mohammed damn it!” when frustrated or disappointed. “By Jove!” is the nearest I can think of.

Why? Inching ever more relevant, for Christians, is the implication of this matter, which is more consequential than we are apt to realize. My lifetime is replete with many Jewish friends, which I happily stipulate despite the snide comments that the concept of “some of my best friends…” always inspires. And I have heard uncountable numbers of them over the years use Jesus’ Name as a curse. Or the formal title Jesus Christ, which seldom sounds more pious in those contexts.

We Christians invariably take it in stride. No – “in stride” is an insufficient term. If my own experience is a standard, we “wimp out,” try to ignore it, take the offense on our Savior’s behalf, and, usually, attempt not to offend the person.

Shameful we are, rather.

We shut up when the Creator of the Universe, the Savior of our Souls is made into a curse in our presence. Because we are too timid; or because not offending an acquaintance is more important than being complicit in an offense to the Son of God.

“Whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33 NLE translation).

By the way, my use of NLE means “No Loophole Edition” of the Bible. From the Commandments to Jesus’ own Words, to the Epistles, God Almighty requires respect. No loopholes, sorry. He actually asks little of us… but respect is one things. A defense is another.

Through the years I have done certain things – may God forgive me, not often enough – but when I have heard a supermarket shopper or fellow office-worker utter “Jesus Christ!” as a curse, I sometimes tell them that they are insulting my Best Friend. Being rhetorical, I have asked, “Do you know Jesus that well? Do you want to continue… and talk to Him in prayer together?” When I discern that I ought to be serious, I will ask if the person realizes that the Incarnation of God Almighty became Jesus in the flesh, and loved us both so much that He became the sacrifice for our sins. In other words… show some respect.

It is easy to be rebuffed. Be scorned and perhaps insulted. To be spoken about as nosy, or worse (?), as a religious nut.

So what? You have stood up for a Friend. You probably would do so in defense of your spouse or child. Why not your Savior? Your Best Friend.

Jesus stood up for you. He laid Himself down. He scrambled up that cross, virtually, to bear your sins. To suffer and die. Defending His Name – and then sharing His love – is the least we can do.

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Click: Do You Know My Jesus?

Don’t Ask Me.

1-9-17

Everybody is an expert these days. Pundits know more than politicians. Bloggers know more than pollsters. People at McDonald’s know more than the president. (The funny thing is, many times these things are true! But, to continue the thought…) Our brother-in-law knows more than we do, whatever the topic; our spouses usually are correct, even when we don’t admit it; and the most aggressively ignorant voter has the same power as policy wonks do.

It is the Age of Experts. Not “expertise,” not wisdom, necessarily, but opinions transcendent. Opinions are not facts, but these days they carry the same weight.

With all the humility I can muster, I want to go on the record and say that there is a LOT that I don’t know. Many of us are tempted to assume, or project, or – let’s be honest – fake an answer, when we are asked things. People ask casual questions or sometimes cry out with anguish about heavy issues. How dare we presume to know things we don’t, whether from positions of false pride or assumptions of merciful comfort.

It is honest to answer casual questions, “Beats me!” And it is liberating to respond to a hurting soul, “I don’t know! I just don’t know either.”

I don’t know why a child who has been loved and nurtured “turns out bad.”

I don’t know why a lovely, innocent child is brutalized by a predator, or killed in an accident.

I don’t know why a youth who turned into an addict, a drunk, an abuser, or a criminal, one day turned his or her life around and became a redeemed soul, ministering to others.

I don’t know why people, especially the kindly folks among us, contract deadly diseases.

I don’t know why people with “incurable diseases” get healed; as I have seen, cancers disappearing, dead limbs coming to life, restored sight.

I don’t know why spouses who are in loving marriages cheat.

I don’t know why rich people steal, or powerful people needlessly scheme, or political leaders oppress.

I don’t know why some people forsake all worldly goods and live among the poor, serving the weak and rejected.

I don’t know why religious people unfairly discriminate, or some of the clergy sexually abuse children.

I don’t know why, in lands of freedom and opportunity, people are lazy, “entitled,” lawless, anti-intellectual, hateful.

I don’t know why our society, despite all its blessings and its heritage, careens to the bottom of the culture’s dumpster, glorifying low morals, lack of respect, and self-glorification.

I don’t know why a nation founded on liberty and goals of equal rights, marches toward government controls and regulation.

I don’t know why a scientific society can, at the same time, devise miracle cures and means of prolonging life… and perfect ways of killing babies more efficiently, with easier consciences, and increasingly by edict.

I don’t know why a country can brag about democracy at home and impose non-democratic systems on other nations.

I don’t know why a country with crumbling roads, bridges, tunnels – and morals – insists on scurrying after such concerns elsewhere in the world.

I don’t know why, with all of our “progress,” humankind seems worse off than ever. Religious persecution, deaths and torture, ethnic cleansing and barbarity, are rife. I don’t know why.

I really don’t know why the Creator of the Universe loves me. Knows me, cares for me, sacrificed His Son for the punishment I deserve as a crummy, rebellious sinner. I don’t know. He tells me; it’s in the Bible; the Holy Ghost whispers to my spirit. Sometimes I know, with gratitude, but sometimes it overwhelms me.

Those are a few things I don’t know. I don’t know why people forgive – or how they can forgive, sometimes. I know we SHOULD, but… I just don’t know why or how.

But God does. That I DO know: God knows.

Comforted by that fact – not opinion – I know that there are things I do not need to know, personally.

When we don’t know the answers, and don’t even know the questions sometimes, that’s when we pray. Pray for answers. Pray alone. Pray together.

When I am comforted by the assurance that I do not need to know all the answers because He does, I have come to the definition of Faith.

I don’t know. He does. Ask Him! He will lead you to all Truth.

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Click: Go Ask the One

Thank You To the god Janus

1-1-17

Our secular world inherited a lot of things from ancient cultures and societies that have gone before. This is logical, as life is a continuum, not a shoebox of snapshots. History is ongoing. This is also proper, because we learn from history (or should) and, at the other end of the spectrum, it is interesting to learn what trappings have remained of customs, beliefs, names, and traditions.

Even the Christian religion owes much to ancient and pagan religions. The name of Easter; the dates of Christmas and Easter; the veneration or invention of some saints, are among the inspirations or compromises that made Christianity palatable to pagan peoples.

Christ’s Resurrection speaks of New Life; Springtime does too; ancient tribes used to celebrate nature’s regeneration in the Spring and face East, where the sun rises. “Branding” Resurrection observances with the associations of Spring – if not taken too far – does not violate any theological truth, and in fact seems virtuous.

… which is a long way around to invite a consideration of January, this January. The month is named for the Roman god Janus, the representation of endings and beginnings; the past and the future; of gates and doorways; of old and new; of transitions; of changes. Janus is called the Two-Faced god not because he was a hypocrite, but as his representations show, the fellow looked backward and forward. Our modern world has inherited more than a month’s name from him. For instance, understanding his traditional characteristics, we know better why New Year’s Resolutions are made in his month.

He bequeathed much, from special stones at the doors of Roman houses, to all manner of traditions and names. When in Bologna, Italy, I stay at the magnificent ancient villa named Torre di Iano – literally, the Towers of Janus. (Twin emotions, of sorts: I love to go; I hate to leave!

Here we are at another January, as always an invitation to contemplate the Old and New. We will welcome a new administration which, partisanship aside, bids fair to be a momentous and history-making (or -changing) presidency. Janus-like events ahead. An inordinate number of prominent people have died this year. But overall, and in deference to ol’ Janus, the numbers of deaths probably will be the same next year as last year. The more things change, the more they stay the same? Sounds wise and likely is wise, as it reflects Ecclesiastes’ “nothing new under the sun.”

Questions about Old and New invite profound thoughts, or trails toward them. They might mostly be variations on glasses “half empty or half full,” which I have never precisely understood; but I know what people grapple with. In nature, we see Janus-attributions everywhere, every day – and how we regard them says less about nature than ourselves.

Things die: flowers, trees, animals, people, theories, civilizations. If you choose to see death all around you, there are myriad examples.

Yet things live! Plants regenerate; succeeding generations of animals and people arise. Even seedlings fight their way between cracks in ugly urban jungles; after the worst of wildfires, “dead” trees grow buds, little animals appear, seemingly from nowhere; even the driest of deserts occasionally bloom – and with the most colorful flowers imaginable.

A variation of the sameness and dullness of life – to those who choose to be gloomy – is the belief that the world of people and the flora and fauna around us, plod on and on and on. Herds of dumb beasts; the bleakness of winter snow; the dulled masses of people.

Yet, facing the opposite direction, we see – and we serve – a different God. The animal and plant world He has created with infinite variety! No zebra nor giraffe has the same markings. Wild animals are different and sound different, one from another in the most populous of species. A rose is not a rose is not a rose!

And, for good or ill, people are different too. That is not only a cliché: we would not it any other way, would we? Approaching seven billion people on earth, there are doppelgangers – our “doubles” exist only in fiction. We miss loved ones, we regret the passing of favorites celebrities, but time marches on. When a harsh dictator or a brutal terrorist, say, dies, those people are almost instantly succeeded in the mortal coil by a baby whose smiles can make the hardest person feel new too… whose innocence blots out any imputed evil record… who is, again and again and again, a symbol of the Newness in life.

The Newness OF life.

We need to be reminded – from ancient traditions if we see them aright, to the vibrancy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – that things die “unto” life. That for every old and even regrettable thing, there are second chances, U-turns, and life more abundant. That God is a god of New Life.

Happy January!
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Click: St Patrick’s Breastplate

We Can Escape the Savior, But Not the Judge

12-5-16

Christianity as a Christmas tree: The consumerist culture of America – more generally, of the materialistic West — has brought us opportunities to choose.

— Choose from among material goods. Once upon a time, Henry Ford reportedly said that his millions of Model Ts were available in any color you wanted, as long as that color was black. Yet his industrial miracle was a boon to middle-class America; and now customers can choose from many manufacturers, many makes, many models, many new designs and options. And many colors.

— Choose among foods. Seasonal fruits and vegetables out of season. Varieties of ethnic foods. Fast food, and faster food. At home or in the car.

— Choose between fashion styles. “Do your thing.” Dress codes mostly out the window. Cargo shorts at church. T-shirts at weddings. Jeans at funerals. Pajama bottoms in public; underpants on display; adornment of permanent outerwear – tattoos and piercings on every inch of bodies.

— Choose amongst lifestyles, and change lifestyles at will. Choose to switch identities and genders. Declare to be a member of a different race. Let rebellion become conformity. Adopt moral codes – or none – depending on your whim, with no regard to long traditions, the effect on contemporaries, or implications for society’s future.

— Commit to any religion, or none; or all. Pick and choose. Dismiss that which makes you uncomfortable; accept those aspects that sound logical to you. Our contemporary world does not recognize that those who embrace all, believe in none.

There is the Christian religion, with its hundreds of permutations and dogmas. And then there is Christianity, a very different thing. There are things we are taught, and believe; and then, sadly, things the Bible teaches that often are different. “Sad,” that is, for us, not God. Through history, people have held to comfortable beliefs and doctrines that are at variance with scripture. Thus were denominations born. And breakaway churches. And schisms. And, sometimes, wars.

These human tendencies are not exclusive to Christianity. The varieties of Islamic sects, practices, and beliefs are many, and have covered much of the Middle East with blood for almost 1500 years. The schisms have brought grief and terror to all parts of the world… and, still, most of us cannot label the factions, their roles, and their headquarters. One needs a scorecard, not the least to comprehend the ancient justifications for their fratricide. Factions within Mohammedanism can be so contentious that some of the faithful lose their heads. And others lose their heads for them.

At one extreme we humans are contrary sorts of folks, or we have an attraction to wanting to monopolize the truth. Such is called Pride in the Bible – it was so called immediately in the Garden. Perhaps, ultimately, pride is humankind’s greatest sin. At the other end of the spectrum, no less toxic to peoples’ souls but merely quieter, are those who think there is NO truth. They exist is self-delusional bliss, but never knowing peace, forgiveness, grace, and elemental joy.

One of the mordant by-products of a secular, pluralistic, “open and welcoming” democracy is that, absent a very strong ethos or a succession of inspired leaders through the generations, these positive values corrode. They rust and lose their strength. Moral codes grow brittle and they break; and eventually are forgotten.

The fault is not in the rules of morality. Morals and ethics do not become less relevant: in a changing world they become better guides for us. But we know better, right? But there IS such a thing as Absolute Truth. Jesus declared Himself to BE the Truth. Truth is truth… and does not at all depend on our opinion of it.

The Spirit of the Age would convince us that we know better than the Bible; that history – all the civilizations that fell because of internal corruption and the abandonment of morality – is no guide. Our “progress” and inventions and science convince us that we know the truth… and God, up there? Jesus, over here? the Bible, over there? Hey, we don’t need You any more.

Blasphemies from Old Testament days, heresies from the days of the early Church, relativistic lies of our contemporary movements, are all the same, small group of lies that have seduced people through the millennia. We eat, drink, and are never quite merry… because one of those lies has just got to be true. Right?

Relativism is the new religion – “what’s right for ME is right” – and Pride is then same old god. We embrace this, spinning with its doomed promises in a dance of death, becoming insensible to the simple, pure, loving Message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In God’s order we are invited to accept Christ and live as a follower of Him. We are free, at our peril, to reject that invitation. We can avoid the Master, and ignore His loving invitation. But One whom we cannot avoid, nor ignore – nor escape – is the God of Judgment.

In the meantime, be your own God. Everybody’s doing it.

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Click: Can It Be That I Should Gain?

Many Happy Returns

9-26-16

Leave it there, leave it there,
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there;
If you trust and never doubt, He will surely bring you out—
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there
.

One of the many remarkable things about the Lord – the God of the Bible we worship, and the faiths that are built on His word – is that He instituted the gift of prayer.

Other religions have gods, some of them have myriad gods. Gods who might be worshiped, or demand sacrifices, or exist as dead prophets or wise men, or statues. The God of the Bible we know, who revealed Himself by inspiration, intervening in history, causing laws to be written, performing miracles, and ultimately revealing Himself through His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, also bestowed the gift of Prayer on His children.

We take this for granted, but other “gods” did not do this. They cannot have conversations with their followers. Those religions are one-way streets. We should daily be awestruck that God wants to hear from us. He wants to know us. He wants to whisper truth and love to us, answering our prayers.

We can take our burdens to the Lord. And what’s more, in the words of the old hymn, we can with confidence “leave them there.”

If the world from you withhold of its silver and its gold,
And you have to get along with meager fare,
Just remember, in His Word, how He feeds the little bird—
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

I have a personal connection with that old gospel song. The story behind its writing is a wonderful story.

After the heart and kidney transplants of my wife Nancy at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia, she and I and our three children conducted a hospital ministry to heart-failure and transplant patients. For six years until moving to California we conducted services and visited patients’ rooms once or twice every week.

In our services, Leave It There became a favorite hymn, often requested by patients, some of whom heard it for the first time in those services, and by patients who came and went through the years.

If your body suffers pain and your health you can’t regain,
And your soul is almost sinking in despair,
Jesus knows the pain you feel, He can save and He can heal—
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

After a time I learned the amazing coincidence (?) that the gospel song had been written only a few blocks from where we met for those services. Charles Albert Tindley, born in 1851, was the son of a slave. By age five he was orphaned, but at 17, after the Civil War, he had taught himself to read and write. He moved from Maryland to Philadelphia, working for no pay as a church custodian but, aspiring to the ministry, he learned Greek and Hebrew. The African Methodist Episcopal Church accredited him on the basis of outstanding test scores and preaching skills. For several years he was placed in different churches in different cities, impressing his congregations and winning converts.

Eventually Tindley received a call to a congregation in Philadelphia, and this servant of God became pastor of the church where he once worked as an unpaid janitor. When he preached his first sermon there, 130 members sat in the pews. Eventually under him the church had more than 10,000 worshipers. He preached, he championed civic causes, and he wrote astonishing hymns and gospel songs. One of his hymns, I’ll Overcome Someday, was transformed with different words and tempo into the Civil Rights anthem We Shall Overcome. Tindley Temple United Methodist Church was his “home,” and today there is a C A Tindley Boulevard in Philadelphia.

Another song was Take Your Burden To the Lord, and Leave It There.

When your enemies assail and your heart begins to fail,
Don’t forget that God in Heaven answers prayer;
He will make a way for you and will lead you safely through—
Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there.

Today I write to recall those great truths, that we can communicate with God; to remember those days of ministry and sharing Jesus with people who were wracked with pain and, sometimes, doubt; and that we don’t have to bear our burdens alone.

But I also want to remind us that there are many prayers and petitions and requests and burdens at the foot of the cross, left by God’s children… but, I wonder, are there the proper number of thanksgivings, praises, prayers of gratitude?

It is our human nature to turn to God when things are bad. He welcomes these prayers, never turning away a hurting heart that contains sincere anguish or pain or confusion or repentance. Never. But it is human nature also to turn to God less often when we have joy.

Do you find this happening? When there are problems, we seek God. Even insurance companies call disasters “acts of God” (boo, by the way). But when things go “right,” how often do we ascribe it to good luck, or the result of patience, or brag about our talent or hard work…?

No, bring Gratitude to the Lord, and “leave it there.” There is room at the cross for that, too.

I humbly would add to this great hymn, about the glory side! One of my verses would be:

When the answers start to come, and your days no longer glum,
And God’s blessings have so sweetly cleared the air,
The joy is not your own; Father sent them from the Throne!
Take your praises to the Lord and leave them there!

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Leave It There became a signature song of the husband-and-wife duo Joey + Rory. Their bittersweet story has “gone viral.” Rising stars of gospel-bluegrass-country music, their fans were happy when sweet Joey became pregnant; and shaken but prayerfully supportive when their baby Indiana was born with Down Syndrome. Soon thereafter, Joey was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

Her illness, prayers, surgeries, and “life at home” was shared with fans and prayer partners… right to the end. Joey died on March 14, 2016. This video shows singer Bradley Walker – who has Muscular Dystrophy – with Val Storey and the legendary Carl Jackson. They sing Leave It There where Joey Feek is buried, a wooden cross marking her gravesite.

Click: Leave It There

Mother Sang a Song

9-19-16

I have a good friend, a neighbor who is a faithful Christian. As happens to devout believers, she is facing challenges and tests. I will quickly add that we know that “the rain falls on the good and the bad” alike, but tests seem most severe on strong Christians.

Properly seen, the devil has less reason to attack those of little faith. And as my wife once pointed out in a way I had never heard it explained, the devil has less reason to attack us, than to rail against Jesus — we will suffer attacks according to the amount of Jesus we invite to have a home in our hearts.

More Jesus in our lives, more persecution and challenges will come our way. But in God’s providence, the Jesus in our hearts does not merely provide answers… but IS the answer, our sword and shield; the Holy Spirit our protector.

My friend is strong, and a strong witness, but at time is spiritually discouraged. Sickness in the home, a disabled spouse, put burdens on her. Her three little kids – bless their hearts – are handfuls. She has wanted to finish her education and start a business with a friend, but cannot. Two sets of good friends are going through awful times, and she feels helpless to assist them, yet tries.

Through it all, despite prayer, discouragement yet looms.

It is the lot of us all, these challenges and, sometimes, tragedies. For the majority of human history, and over many cultures, people have believed that Man should be the Provider, and Woman the Nurturer. But there is thin theology in clichés. The Bible itself is full of examples of women as role models, as carriers of the seed of the Messiah, as special servants and leaders.

It is just different with women, wives, and mothers. The kind of “different” that means special.

One of the Bible’s most beautiful and profound prayers is the “Magnificat,” the response of Mary when she learns that she is carrying Jesus, the Savior of the world:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior;
For He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaiden.
For behold, from this day all generations will call me blessed.

It is not blasphemous to say that all women may rejoice in this prayer, and see their situations in that which was visited upon Mary. Motherhood is a holy thing. “Lowliness” is exalted. The character of one’s family, the future of the race, and the perpetuation of God’s Kingdom, is the cherished possession of every mother.

It is one thing for neighbors to encourage others to “look to Jesus” and trust in God. But mothers – often lonely and vulnerable, sometimes having to be wife, mother, friend, sister, brother, father, leader, and warrior too – need to be reminded that while they look to Jesus… Jesus is looking at them. So are their children and family members, and hurting friends, and strangers.

This advice could invite greater realization of burdens, but always does the opposite. Sharing Jesus; making a “small group” of your home; being the fierce spiritual protectoress that God desires, brings peace, healing, victory.

Another friend recently asked me what my “religious life” was when I grew up. My father, a traditional German Lutheran, was a believer, and active in church. But beyond dinner-table prayers, he seldom talked about Jesus. My mother, however – also a German Lutheran – emotionally prayed, frequently talked about Jesus, answered many of my life-questions in biblical contexts. She had smoked nonstop since her teens years and had a problem with drinking… but she wept every time she prayed. Cause and effect? I don’t know, but she taught me the reality of a personal relationship with Christ.

My own wife Nancy, whose 63rd birthday would have been this week, died after years of horrendous medical problems – heart attacks, strokes, cancer, diabetes, heart and kidney transplants, dialysis – yet the most vulnerable member of our family was the strongest example of faith.

Painfully shy, she yet began a noted ministry to those who suffered what she did. Physically challenged in myriad ways, she yet fretted that her children were inconvenienced by her illnesses. Never attending Bible school, she studied and became a powerful exegete – a “doer of the Word, not a hearer only.”

Although it is not Mother’s day – another cliché, but true: all days are mothers’ days – I want to encourage the friend I wrote about; I remember my mom; I honor my late wife. And I want us all to remember that the opposite of discouragement is encouragement. That the “fort” buried in the word “comfort,” and the Holy Spirit’s other name, the Comforter, remind us that strength can be ours, and not only in us, but granted to us, by grace.

Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning, Psalm 30:5 reminds us. Thank God for mothers, their prayers, and their songs.

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This is an old standard, written by Bill Anderson (sung by him here at a 50th anniversary tribute to his career) and recorded through the years by everyone from Walter Brennan to jazz bandleader Stan Kenton.

Click: Mother Sang a Song

Our Pentecost of Calamity

8-22-16

There are many worldviews by which people live today, as there always has been in all societies. The difference in contemporary America, I think, is that the majority of citizens have no idea of what a worldview is, or whether or not they care about operating under any established and consistent precepts.

Even Christians, including dedicated and fervent church-goers, often fail the test of worldview standards. Many Christians love God and believe in Jesus, but as if in the world but not of the world, know more what they oppose than what they should defend. As we recently noted, most people these days are not so much ignorant of history as indifferent to its relevance.

In the political realm, partisans on the Left know their socialist and Marxist dogma, even if they reject the labels. On the Right, there are patriots who love liberty and know the Constitution. In the vast Middle, well-intentioned people are malleable, their opinions inevitably shaped less by events than by the media and the culture.

This situation in America and the West was foretold by Aldous Huxley in a letter to George Orwell (both notable futurists and dystopian thinkers) in 1949: “Within the next generation I believe that the world’s leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than [sticks] and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience.”

The Bible, inevitably, put the same thought – the same prediction – most clearly: “The time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables” (II Timothy 4: 3-4). Indeed, we love our servitude.

Counted among those “teachers” are not only members of the educational-industrial complex, but also politicians, role-models from popular culture, and… “people of the cloth” – ministers, preachers, priests, rabbis.

I am pessimistic about the future of American civilization (as well as of our “democracy,” republic, and government) because we are the inheritors of at least 500 years of a corrupted worldview. The worst aspects of a cultural secularization were unlikely to have coexisted with theocentric virtue. America was a “last best hope” of mankind, not for democracy’s sake – never an ideal of the Founders and Framers – but of a virtuous society. Respect, self-respect, order, justice, charity: these were among the characteristics recommended, and recognized, by Pilgrims and Great Revivalists; by our civic architects like John Adams and James Madison; by admiring observers like Alexis de Tocqueville, who retained enough equanimity to state: “When America ceases to be good, she will cease being great.”

One of the infections of the half-millennium cited above is the belief in progress, a hallmark of the Modern Age. Most Americans will think my definition, and certainly my analysis, is loopy. But that shows how pervasive this worldview has become. Earlier societies and civilizations, however, neither believed in the inevitability of human progress nor its efficacy, if they thought much about it at all.

Inherent in the concept of progress, and history’s plodding march “forward,” is perfectibility. Once that belief is subscribed (and we have made a fetish of it in the West), then it naturally follows that laws can be passed, rules enforced, behavior modified, all to achieve perfection. In society; in individuals. Justice. Heaven on earth. Utopia.

Of course, this leads not to progress but to schemes, warring factions, and, for example, the parade of monsters of the past century who consigned millions to servitude and battlefield slaughters. Secularism, the glorification of Self, will do that. Human nature without its restraints reveals the worst, not the putative best, aspects. We have arrived at the 21st century thinking we know better than all societies, in all of history – better than the Word of God – about the structure of the family, the role of authority, the sanctity of life, and a host of such truths. Gosh, we’re great.

I cannot decry progress in certain areas by certain characterizations. My late wife, a diabetic since the age of 13, would not have had a 14th birthday party if not for medical science. I could not be enjoying Bach as I type a message that (still magically, to me) will be read by thousands of people. I am not an all-in Luddite.

But our conceited conviction that, quoting Dr Pangloss from Voltaire’s “Candide,” this is the best of all possible worlds, is as self-swindling and ridiculous as, well, Pangloss himself. It might just be the case that the world will never host a greater philosopher than Plato; no better sculptors than Michelangelo and Rodin; no better composers than Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. The works of Rodin and the Viennese masters do not vitiate my point, but encourage us always to create and emulate. Not be perfect, because only God is perfect; but to create as He inspires us to be creative. (I mention Rodin, having last week stood in awe before sculptures in the Rodin Museum…)

The most pernicious effect of this modern malady is that we humans make a god of perfectibility: to the extent we can think, innovate, reform, and devise according to a faith in Progress, we commensurately surrender faith in God. We have replaced it with a faith in humanistic progress, in humankind’s perfectibility, in our selves.

Foolish us, we are doomed to fail. If you can lift your gaze from the muck – the bread and circuses as well as the disintegration of our social fabric – you will see how well the seduction of Progress’s inevitability and modern definition is working.

“And if it seem evil unto you to serve the Lord, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served… or the gods… in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:15).

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Purcell’s Funeral Sentences

The Festival of the Empty Nest

8-15-16

The end of summer is nigh… Schools are back in session… Once upon a time, it was the “new television season”… Labor Day around the corner and the traditional beginning of the presidential campaign (I wish it WERE only starting now, instead of two hundred weeks ago)….

Anyway, these few days are called many things, but they are also regarded by countless families as the Festival of the Empty Nest. Many young people are going off to college for the first time.

Leaving home, whether it is to dive into life, or for the intermediary step of a college career, or the military, or a job opportunity, is a Rite of Passage. For parents and children alike it is, or should be, the essence of Bittersweet. All of a sudden, 17 or 18 years seems like a blur; everyone becomes conscious of unfinished projects and unshared words.

But the clock is ticking, the calendar is calling, and life awaits. Oddly, the hours drag, but the years have flown.

I watched the recent conventions and wondered about the rising class of future leaders. Old leaders and newcomers spoke. Many times I asked myself: “A third of billion people in America, and this is the best we can do?” Who are next on the horizon? Do they know? Can they dream? – Can they prepare well? It is a lesson framed many ways: “Carpe diem” – seize the day. “Never a second chance at a first impression.” “Strike while the iron is hot.” “We pass this way but once.”

I see lessons to be applied in family situations when children leave home, too. Our regrets should not equate with inability to let go. Every one of us should say all that we can to our children; express everything, without reservation. As we should have all those years past. Now is the time to make up for uncountable lost opportunities! Or so we feel.

Children juggle the loss of the family’s pod-like security and the excitement of independence. I was always a little disappointed when my own children did not resist getting on the school bus on the first days of their school lives, as I fought back tears. But, to them they were new chapters; to me, chapters ending.

For parents there is no way properly to describe the mixed feelings of the mixed blessing. You will miss the daughter or son. For many of us, despite the contrary assurance of worldly logic, a crater suddenly exists in our everyday lives. But we are wired as parents to possess an indescribable joy in seeing our children take their next steps into the world. Spread their wings. It is RIGHT. It is what you have prepared your child for – even if not yourself, fully – all these years.

Being a parent was never easy. Oh, all the challenges and crises… but then how is it that the hardest part comes when they leave home?

I’m not sure science has ever analyzed tears. Those salty droplets. Maybe one of our budding students will win the Nobel Prize for such research. But there are tears of pain, of regret, of sorrow, of bitterness, of lost opportunities, of lost love and found love, and surely tears of joy. The tears that parents shed during these rites of passage are of a special composition. Distilled, they somehow confirm to us God’s loving “wheel” of life – “there is a season,” He tells us. Whether a little scary, or seemingly sudden, or a guarantee of big changes in our lives… we must seize more than the moment, but the season too.

“Letting go?” Think of it as spreading your arms in fond farewell, so that they can be open to receive… when the next season comes.

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I have never heard a song, or read lyrics, that more beautifully reflects the bundle of emotions in the Rite of Passage of children leaving home (in this case, a college student) than “Letting Go,” by Doug Crider and Matt Rollings.

She’ll take the painting in the hallway,
The one she did in junior high.
And that old lamp up in the attic,
She’ll need some light to study by.

She’s had 18 years to get ready for this day.
She should be past the tears; she cries some anyway.
Letting go: There’s nothing in the way now,
Oh, letting go, there’s room enough to fly.
And even though she spent her whole life waiting,
It’s never easy letting go.

Mother sits down at the table,
So many things she’d like to do.
Spend more time out in the garden,
Now she can get those books read too.

She’s had 18 years to get ready for this day.
She should be past the tears; she cries some anyway.
Letting go: There’s nothing in the way now,
Oh, letting go, there’s room enough to fly.
And even though she spent her whole life waiting,
It’s never easy letting go.

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For a music video of this song, amazingly performed by the amazing Suzy Bogguss (wife of Doug Crider), click: Letting Go

“It’s Me Again, God…”

8-8-16

Have you ever called out to God in a moment of crisis? Or, better put, how often have you cried out to God in a moment of crisis?

Of course we have all been there, and it will not change. God, after all, did not promise to keep us from life’s troubles. He just promised to be with us through them.

Christoper Hitchens, famous as an apologist for atheism, once wrote, “What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” Hitchens, who died of esophageal cancer soon after writing those words, wrote books and articles against God, and debated across the continent with the fervent Christian Dinesh D’Souza. None of us can evaluate the emotional wrestling-matches he endured with himself (and his God) – he evidently was touched by a widespread “Pray for Christopher Hitchens Day” in September of 2010. But I shudder to contemplate if he was tempted to cry to God… but was deterred by pride.

If a reliance on God (please: no “higher being”; no “man upstairs” – I mean the God of the Bible) is a basic yearning of every person’s soul, then we must admit that pride is a universal stumbling-block to exercising that reliance. How common is the realization that we turn for help… when we need help? The logic of it does not mitigate the embarrassment: “God, it’s me again. Sorry it’s been awhile…”

Too often we pray fervently in times of crises, and pray casually – or not at all – when blessings are flowing. Human nature.

God knows it is human nature. That is why He provided ways to counter that aspect. Communication, constant communication, which He calls “prayer.” And the testimony of our hearts, which He can read, and knows better than we ourselves do.

God seeks communication with us – and half of that is hearing from us. He takes joy in every manner of our turning to Him. He is grieved when we do not. In Micah 6:3 we have the picture of a God who is offended and hurt when we ignore Him: “O my people, what have I done to you? How have I wearied you? Answer me!”

So. If God receives pleasure when we seek Him and communicate through prayer, and if we generally tend to seek Him and pray only when things go bad… wouldn’t it be in the nature of a loving God to “allow” some “bad” things to buffet us?

I do not believe that He sends sickness or disease on His children – the Lord of the universe is not a child abuser – but in order for us to see Him as “an ever-present help in times of trouble,” there must be trouble. Following that, He will answer, and help, and communicate what we need to know: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17); “Thou, LORD, hast not forsaken them that seek thee” (Psalm 9:10).

Is God at work in our lives when crises and problems beset us… when those happen to be the only times when we seek fellowship with Him? Is this good theology? I don’t know. Just sayin’…

Think about it. If God desires to hear from us, but we ignore Him except when trouble comes… Well, my advice is to not tempt God. Keep those lines of communication open. The voice of experience: then blessings can flow your way.

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Here is a heartfelt spiritual song that briefly illustrates the anguished call to God we all experience at times. It is one of the very last songs that a feeble Johnny Cash recorded, but one of the most powerful of messages about asking God’s help:

Click:  Help Me, Lord

The End of End Times

8-1-16

Tim LaHaye died this week. Many people know him from – indeed, were mightily affected by – his books, the famous Left Behind series.

I never met Tim, but had mutual friends across the landscape. I attended the church he pastored, Scott memorial, later Shadow Mountain, in California. A magazine I edited, Rare Jewel, promoted Beverly LaHaye’s organization Concerned Women for America, and we interviewed him. Likewise we profiled the Institute for Creation Research in El Cajon, which spun off the college Tim founded, now known as san Diego Christian College. My friend Stacy Hollenbeck from girlhood was a friend of the LaHayes, and Tim married Stacy and my buddy Mike Atkinson (I mean… he officiated at the ceremony). Finally, my agent, Greg Johnson, was Tim’s literary rep on many of his books.

It sounds amazing, actually, that we never met. In my San Diego years, I did get to know quite well some Christian luminaries (of different camps, truth be told): Mike Yaconelli; Wayne Rice; Jim Garlow; David Jeremiah; Miles McPherson;
Josh McDowell – forgive me for name-dropping, one of my cardinal sins. Which
reminds me, I saw a cardinal in my back yard yesterday…) Maybe I was just Left Behind.

The Left Behind books were a publishing sensation. Co-authored (actually written) by Jerry B Jenkins, they numbered more than a dozen titles and sequels; movies; and uncountable debates. They brought the Tribulation (the awful events at the end of history, foretold in many Bible prophecies), the Rapture (the physical disappearance of believers before the end of the world), and the apocalypse of Daniel and Revelation (and many other places in scripture), into mainstream discussion.

LaHaye’s views and books formed a sort of Second Blessing of Eschatology (study of End Times), following upon the wave of interest generated by Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth and other books in the 1970s. My wife was one of the followers of the Left Behind series, and followed the news with informed interest, finding Biblical parallels that LaHaye’s books made more evident.

The phenomenon peaked about a dozen years ago, and will, if the End Times do not come first and subsume humanity and rapture the faithful in the meantime, assert itself again.

Just as with the “other end” of the Bible’s timeline – Biblical archaeology – modern science is explaining things to us that once seemed like fantasy or even nonsense. Ancient cities and rulers once described by “experts” to be of mythology or legend… are appearing in diverse places like desert plains shorelines, and under Jerusalem’s streets. Likewise, coins and amulets with faces and names and dates, are now confirmed as real, not fictional. (Just wait – I have had a glimpse – until you see the National Center of the Bible, opening soon on the National Mall in Washington DC. It will open many eyes.) (Need I say? NOT sponsored by the Federal Government…)

It is remarkable, just as science is explaining, if not confirming, many of the “mysterious” events and occurrences of Bible prophecy. Thank you, God, for Your timing. Some of us have waited patiently (sometimes impatiently) for scientists to catch up with you. Our next chuckle is when some chucklehead with a degree realizes that the Big Bang is just tech-language for Genesis.

Having asserted all this wise-guy stuff, however – and no offense to the late Dr LaHaye – there are some things about End Times that pastors, theologians, fiction writers, and scientists will never explain. And I hope they never do.

The Book of Revelation – Jesus’s dictation to John on the Isle of Patmos – even specific letters to specific churches, are shrouded in the type of mystery that leaves us ever conflicted. Literal words? Imagery? Poetry? Warnings? Fearfulness? Hope? Of course, Bible prophecy is a bit of all these… but in what mixture, with what emphasis here, or there, I believe God means to be ambiguous.

The mysterious aspects of the End Times, to the extent they are mysterious, are intended to KEEP US ON OUR SPIRITUAL TOES.

It is a sin that eschatological questions often are the basis of angry disputes among believers. They can claim to be well-intentioned, but Christians think they can improve on God – who always has been quite clear when He wanted to be. Let us speculate: that is useful. But let us not obsess.

We’ll find out… maybe sooner than we think.

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Click: Midnight Cry

God’s Word for Worried Christians This Election

7-25-16

Pray.”

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Click: Oh, God Our Help in Ages Past

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Welcome To the Revolution

7-11-16

Next week the next chapter of the political season commences, a national political convention. Otherworldly events, horrible and startling, have intruded on the already turbulent political news of recent weeks. We scarcely can catch a breath.

Nevertheless the conventions will come. Partisans and opponents prepare for a summer of conflict and confrontation, claims and calumny. And these things seem to be the mode à la mode for most people. Reasonable discourse is obsolete; debates are extinct; persuasion has been replaced by insults and invective.

We are in the midst of a revolution in America.

Of this there is no doubt. It is one of those revolutions, as approximately half of history’s examples, that did not begin with a Lexington and Concord or 95 Theses; that is, one seminal moment or event. Some profound revolutions have commenced with general discontents and scattered protests. Cultural angst usually derives from myriad sources, and then manifests itself in myriad ways. And when the dust settles (as ephemeral as dust is, things slowly come into focus), societies have been transformed.

To consider the ironies of many cultural revolutions, and citing the two examples above, Lexington and Concord led to a military confrontation, bloodshed, and a course-change among nation states. Yet the United States, newly free and independent, was in most ways indistinguishable from Great Britain. But Martin Luther’s mere petition and modest hammer and nails resulted in convulsive changes to Christian theology and worship, the political alignment of the European continent, literacy of the masses, and democracy.

We can also look to the Protestant Reformation – properly, Revolution – and see why it is difficult to distinguish between hard and soft revolutions in their midst. The Counter-Reformation’s Council of Trent was so intent on proving the reformers incorrect that it doubled down on dogma, rather than meeting minds and answering questions. Galileo’s requirement to make the sun stand still, so to speak, was a result of the revolutionaries’ challenges and the church’s orthodoxy. The Inquisition resulted. Ironic, but so goes the course of intellectual effects.

Even in anti-intellectual periods of history (and they outweigh the sober, rational times) intellectualism directs the affairs of humankind, like Archimedes’s fulcrum. So: by these criteria, I claim we are in the midst, not on the verge, of a revolution in America. And likely in all of the West: Europe also.

The breakdown of social order hurtles along with compounding velocity. We can fool ourselves that it is otherwise. Or that “incidents are merely more reported than in the past.” Or that this is a passing phase. No, the tentacles of Islamic terrorism have reached into the American and European heartlands, and, scarcely rebuffed, are met with excuses and “tolerance” as unique welcome mats. Domestic terrorism, in the guise of Black Lives Matter, gangs of illegal drug and gun lords, and other PC-protected thugs, inflict fright on the homeland.

In the Land of the Free, legal abortions have killed more babies than all the “holocausts” of recent history combined. Among Blacks, unwed mothers account for 80 per cent of the babies who are not snuffed. Urban-school dropout rates are at all-time highs, and increasingly so. Academic test scores fall, despite constantly lowering definitions of passable scores. (I think the math competency of American students currently is behind that of Chad.) (Which is a country, not a high-school kid in the next town.) Borders, the security of which is a historical marker for statehood, are a joke. The flow of drugs is less a function of porous borders than a perverse population of addicts and moral zombies who provide lucrative markets. Failed marriages; homosexuality; spousal abuse; human trafficking; political corruption; sexual perversion; kids into cutting; poverty; violence; prejudice; child predators; suicide among veterans…

Et cetera. Ad infinitum. Ad nauseam.

And the church. Supposed to be a bulwark, in this supposedly Christian nation. The church – you and I, may I presume? – has been the Great Enabler. The church has compromised its standards. Christians became so deadened to Peter Abelard’s warning (in Expositiones) against “the world, flesh, and the devil” that it surrendered. It became so “tolerant” of alien beliefs that it lost its own. It was so centered on contemporary culture that it morphed from roaring lion to timid chameleon. We have lost our faith in faith.

The great historian of culture Jacques Barzun wrote in his monumental book From Dawn to Decadence that “the cultural predicament after a revolution is how to reinstate community, how to live with those you have execrated and fought against with all imaginable cruelty.” His use of the world “community” is dispositive in this discussion, the canary in the mineshaft of our cultural abyss.

For a generation we have been hearing of “community”; in fact the popular culture harangues us with the word. “The African-American community.” “The gay community.” “Community organizers…” Where are these communities? Are there boundaries and welcome signs? No, today, “community” is a concept of diffusion and disruption, not comfort and cohesion.

“Diversity” is the deceptive enemy of unity… the camouflaged term, like “community,” that divides America. For years, America exercised goodwill to build a unified nation, a melting pot. To cherish traditions but eliminating differences. But forces today work to divide and separate us one from another. To incite resentment instead of fostering fellowship.

The Entitlement Society celebrated by the enemies in our midst force-feeds Identity Politics as the new American creed. Divide; hate our heritage; destroy not only the ideals but the people themselves who cling, yes, to their Bibles and guns. Glorify Diversity even if might offend you in any way; but accept Community with those who might hate you.

“Do not put your confidence in powerful people; there is no help for you there,” is our reminder from Psalm 146:3 (NLT). As the political conventions draw nigh, we have this command, not necessarily to reject all leaders and potential leaders… but to not put confidence in them. Psalm 46:1 – The LORD is our refuge and our strength, our ever-present help in times of trouble.

And these ARE times of trouble.

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Click: Bruce Springsteen – Satan’s Jewel Crown

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been for many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

Dad’s Day – “Daddy!”

6-20-16

Father’s Day. A bit of an ersatz holiday started, actually in fits and starts, about a century ago, mostly as an answer to the more successful, and sentimental, Mother’s Day. Calvin Coolidge was one of several presidents and officials to resist any formalization – on grounds that would be antithetical to our contemporary standards: fearing it would become too commercialized. It was only President Johnson who issued the first proclamation, in the 1960s; and President Nixon a few years later signed the observance of Father’s Day into law.

We need a law to honor our fathers? Well, manufacturers of socks and ugly neckties did. Do we have stronger impulses to honor our distaff parental units? Perhaps so, instinctively, aided and abetted by Hallmark and florists.

This weekend we can suspend the cynicism, however. I honor and miss my father. He has been gone more than 15 years yet I still reach for the phone, sometimes, to share something with him. When I finish writing a book, or discover a piece of classical music, my first impulse is to think what he would say about it.

This is proper. The “scarlet thread” is not solely of Redemption in our lives: we are, or should consider ourselves, members of a continuum that is stronger than blood. Family traditions, the fabric of memories, shared experiences – these are truer resemblances than overbites or freckles.

You will expect me to enlarge the topic to our Heavenly Father, and so I shall.

It is a cliché, or a chestnut, to say that, regarding God Almighty, every day should be Father’s Day. But like most clichés it is true. The sheer magnificence of God can sometimes be overwhelming… similar to when we try to think of the size of the universe. How big, how far… and what is beyond the farthest reaches we can imagine? How old is the universe? Forget the Big Bang… what came before the Big Bang (or, to use the Bible’s parlance, Creation)?

The Lord is one God but present through the Trinity; manifested in one Incarnation but with uncountable attributes; the One True God, the “I Am,” yet with endless aspects; and so forth. The “God of the Old Testament” is often an appellation for a God of Vengeance and Justice. The “God of the New Testament” is described as a God of Love and Mercy. Yet, of course, these attributes – and more – are consistent, frequent, and immutable. Not changeable; just faceted.

Then there is “Abba.” Don’t worry. I am not going to discuss the Swedish pop group ABBA. Many Christians use “Abba” in addressing God, relying, whether consciously or not, upon three passages in the New Testament:

“And [Jesus] said, Abba, Father, all things (are) possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done” (Mark 14:36).

“And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6).

“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Romans 8:15).

A little etymology for a moment. These are the only times in the New Testament that “Abba” appears. It is an ancient Aramaic word for Father, adopted and adapted into Hebrew, probably through the Syriac or Chaldee tongues. The Greek texts use it, always follow by “Pater,” father, emphasizing the respect implied in addressing a father, or Father God. In turn the Romans made the word “Pater” their own – the Greek and Latin root giving us “paternal,” paternity,” and so forth. It exists, of course, in Arabic too, and survives in forms like “Abu” in kunya (honorific) names; for instance, the President of the Palestinian State Mahmoud Abbas has the honorific “Abu” Mazen – father of Mazen. “Abba” is possibly the root of Ab-raham, Ahab, Joab, et al. In English it lives in descendent words like “Abbot.”

It is everywhere, once you start looking. Just like our Heavenly Father.

In recent Christianity, “Abba” has been taught and urged upon worshipers as a form of “Father” that actually means something close to “Daddy.” Most recent scholarship debunks that interpretation, asserting that Abba – especially “Abba, Father” as Jesus prayed and Paul wrote – is, by doubling down, a term of heightened respect, not familiarity.

To be formal one last moment, it appears that Abba, especially in prayer, is neither symbolic nor diminutive. Not baby-talk (like Mama, a common utterance in many cultures) as some Christians maintain – a primal vocative. “Father” is a translation; “Abba” is a transliteration. These scholars even tell us that “Abba,” when people in prayer cry it out, is irreverent.

But. Words are tools. Most of us are not linguists or semanticists. And, frankly, if people intensely are praying, we can dispense with a nit-pick about a term being obscure, or irreverent, or deeply sincere. God reads our hearts, anyway.

I have witnessed, and been in the place myself, where someone is under intense spiritual anguish. Conviction, guilt, helplessness, yearning, need. Or joy unspeakable, thanksgiving, praise. People with addictions. Challenges of health or finances. Wives distraught over their marriages; fathers worried about their children; teens fighting bondage.

You pray. You remember biblical models. You seek the prayer-language of angels. And then you get to the point where you just want to say – to cry out! – “Abba!!!”

Yes, “Daddy.” We want to run to Him, hug and be hugged, feel forgiven, and know that we are loved. That’s what Daddys do.

Happy Father’s Day. And say hi to Dad for me when you pray.

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This relevant song is not Christian, but very spiritual – those family threads I wrote about. Steve Goodman, who also wrote “City of New Orleans,” sings about his father who died and inspired this emotional song. This is only for people who have had fathers; everyone else may pass it by.

Click: My Old Man

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been for many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

Remembering the Greatest

6-13-16

This seems to be the year of celebrity deaths. To those of my generation, we read of people we sometimes did not realize were still alive, TV stars of our childhood. Singers. I will never get over Merle Haggard’s passing. I met him a number of times, but his work would have been a part of my life if I never had.

Celebrities are dying and in predictable cycles, a period of public consternation often is followed by the unsurprising “news” that drugs were the murder weapons, so to speak. I have yet to hear one saddened fan or, say, TV commentator, treat such news of lethal overdoses as anything but a sorry mistake by the decedent.

Some deaths, the visible ones, are under scrutiny because we should pause over the self-infliction of drugs and dangerous lifestyles. As I said, our society does not draw lessons, so these useless suicides (as we may see them; all suicides being horrible), routinely roll forward, festooning every fourth or fifth cover of People.

Some people kill themselves with drugs, some with unsafe sex; many with many assorted and, sadly, time-tested paths of drink, gluttony, greed, and so forth. Then there is the gray area of practices we know are self-destructive if not outright deadly. California just passed a law allowing people to choose suicide if two doctors sign off, and people administer their own poison. California is not the first state, nor is the United States the first country, to legalize suicide.

Then there are the people like Muhammad Ali.

My friend Milt Priggee, the editorial cartoonist from Washington State, drew a brilliant cartoon after Ali died, a switch on the famous photo of Ali in the ring after a knockdown of Sonny Liston, savagely growling over his opponent, almost inhuman. But in the cartoon, Ali was on the mat, and the victorious fighter was the figure of Death, with the label “29,000 head blows induced Parkinson’s.”

Would Ali have quit boxing if he knew Parkinson’s awaited? He grew up among old-time fighters who were “walking dead,” insensate, laughingly called “punch drunk.” The last 30 years, or more, of his life, were wracked by physical and mental debilitation. Junior Seau, whom I met in San Diego and seemed to all the world like an affable and contented retired football hero… shot himself to death, and his autopsy revealed Chronic Brain Damage, a common condition to pro football players. Today, many football players refuse to allow their sons to play football. A major movie, Concussion, is devoted to the sport of personal destruction.

I met Muhammad Ali once. My college invited him to speak in the late 1960s, and I was on the Programming Board so was able to spend a few moments with him. I was caught up in the audience’s frenzy after his bombastic speech – actually, a lot devoted to black self-sufficiency – and I was among those who wanted just to pat his back as he walked past. He was charismatic.

A few years later I was comics editor of a newspaper syndicate in Chicago when a black cartooning aspirant came to my office with an idea for a daily cartoon based on the quotations of Ali. I thought there were commercial possibilities in the concept and went to the law firm Sidley&Austin, which represented the boxer. As I remember the sad incident, his reps were interested but did not like the work of the artist, and were willing to discuss going forward with some other cartoonist… with no compensation to the fellow whose idea this was. I declined to proceed. (I am reasonably certain that the samples never went before Ali, but I do not know. It is interesting to note that a few year later, the future Michelle Obama was an associate on staff of Sidley&Austin; and Barack Obama worked one summer there.)

Not much personal, but it is interesting to note that until the recent canonization, there was legitimate debate about whom among Jack Dempsey or any of a number of heavyweights including Ali, was the best pound-for-pound boxer of all time. In recent eulogies, little was made of his refusal to register for the military draft. When referred to, people now often cite Ali’s courage and convictions. He was, however, sentenced to five years in prison, overturned in a virtual conscientious-objector judgment after he claimed that 10 per cent of his life would be boxing, and 90 per cent to be spent as a Muslim minister.

I come not to criticize Ali but to think of him in perspective. We are hearing of acts of kindness, for example a virtual tug-of-war to give a hitchhiker money for the Bible the man offered in thanks. I hope these stories are true; and they seem to be of a kind with other celebrities performing kindnesses. A Somali woman recently braved retaliation from two groups by calling Ali a great fighter but not a great man, that when he converted from Christianity to Islam “he essentially sold his soul to the same kind of [Muslim] racists who rounded up his African forefathers and sold them into slavery… and are still doing so in the Middle East today.”

That gets close to something that always repelled me when I was young, and since; even as the world found his routines compelling. “I am the greatest.” Of course he meant the greatest boxer, but he didn’t stop there, and neither have his acolytes. The hagiography, fertilized and insulated by the horrible Parkinson’s Disease that plagued him, will continue. He will be a role model whose main achievement was punching people senseless; who refused the uniform of the nation that nurtured him; whose legacy is seen in the illiterate jabber of interviewees in the Louisville neighborhood of his youth. That is to say, black youths, supposedly inspired by The Greatest all these decades, are poorer, more illiterate, and specialize in illegitimacy, in ever-greater numbers. Not the legacy that is ascribed to him.

But what specifically repelled me, and still saddens me, is the choice he made to turn his back on Jesus. Worse, to cast himself as the “Greatest” when humility and a recognition of Jesus’s greatness was there for the taking. And especially as his adopted Islam widely is being associated with barbarity and slaughter. LIKE AT THE HOMOSEXUAL NIGHTCLUB IN ORLANDO.

God “is the great ‘I am’”; and His Son Jesus Christ – not a prophet but the Son of the Living God – is Advocate (1 John 2:1); Almighty (Rev. 1:8; Mt. 28:18); Alpha and Omega (Rev. 1:8; 22:13); Author of Life (Acts 3:15); Author and Perfecter of our Faith (Heb. 12:2); Author of Salvation (Heb. 2:10); Beginning and End (Rev. 22:13); Bread of Life (John 6:35; 6:48); Christ (1 John 2:22); Creator (John 1:3); Faithful Witness (Rev. 1:5); Heir of all things (Heb. 1:2); High Priest (Heb. 2:17); Horn of Salvation (Luke 1:69); Image of God (2 Cor. 4:4); Lamb of God (John 1:29); Lord of All (Acts 10:36); Only Begotten Son of God (John 1:18; 1 John 4:9); Our Righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30); Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6); Savior (Eph. 5:23; Titus 1:4; 3:6; 2 Pet. 2:20); Truth (John 1:14; 14:6); Wonderful Counselor (Isa. 9:6); The Word (John 1:1).

We can all “float like butterflies.” As with the lowly caterpillars, we can be transformed into beautiful creatures, through Christ Jesus, the one and only Greatest.

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Click: Great Is Thy Faithfulness

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been for many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

Teacher of the Year

5-30-16

Graduation time. As much as part of the season as the swallows “coming back to Capistrano”; the welcome of “sweet springtime, we greet thee in song”; and all that. Smart investors would have looked, in winter months, for manufacturers of caps and gowns, T-shirts that proclaim “I finally made it!” and makers of Dollar-Store trophies – brass filglagees with bronze oak-leaf palm and plastic plaques that read “Teacher of the Year.”

It is the time of year, also, for news stories about teachers, students, achievements, and academic statistics. We hear that the United States falls yet farther down in the world’s ratings of student grades and scores. We learn about dropout rates in urban schools, and meth epidemics in rural schools. Again, and again, of lowered minimum standards of aptitude tests, artificially to counteract the galloping moronization of American education.

On the other hand, bright spots. A student who scored perfect verbal and math SAT scores. Impressive winners of spelling bees. But the smaller numbers of quality student graduates are doomed to attend colleges where sensitive feelings and useless degrees predominate.

A bright spot for me this week was judging a competition (yes, the word is still legal) of students delivering orations. They had to compose and deliver – as I furiously took notes and assessed them – informative or persuasive speeches. Ages 10 to 15, any subjects of their choosing. I was impressed by maturity, self-awareness and self-assurance, and indeed, first-rate information and persuasion.

My easiest task was to critique and encourage; the toughest challenge was to choose the top three of impressive presentations. I felt a renewed hope for the future of our culture. Of course, eventually I stepped back out into the springtime air of Michigan. (Not incidentally, this was a group of home-schooled students.)

With the seed of a message planted in my mind, I did research into the Teacher of the Year concept. Like ants at a picnic, they are too many to count. Every state has an official Teacher of the Year – in fact, every county, district, town, school, and, often, grade-levels have them. There are rival associations that sanction Teachers of the Year. Every year. If you feel overwhelmed by the ubiquity of it all (how many Bests can there be?), save yourself the trouble of looking for sanctuary: even the North Marianas Islands have multiple Teacher of the Year awards.

By itself, this is encouraging, even if it says more about courtesy and gratitude than excellence. But there is that inevitable Other Side of the Coin. Teachers make headlines these days, sadly, for more than classroom excellence or inspiration. I did a Google search of “Teachers Charged with Sex Crimes” and 59 pages of stories and reports (each page, of course, with multiple links) were displayed.

Enough said about what we may call “mixed grades” to American education in 2016. Back when I was an elementary-school student I respected my teachers as people, but recognized that many of them were nitwits drawing paychecks. This generalization might be a rule of life, overall, and ultimately students excel by overcoming the mundane, perhaps a greater challenge than overcoming more blatant handicaps. But… today. A different world. Metal detectors in schools; the Bible proscribed; sex instruction and indoctrination masquerading as “sex education”; teachers whose names appear in sex-offender registries.

My mind, still racing if not reeling, thinks about some of humankind’s greatest teachers. Many were not from classrooms; many great teachers never were trained as educators. Indeed, some of our greatest teachers – I think of Abraham Lincoln – spent nary a day of their lives even as students, in the classroom-attendance sense. That mind of mine went back to Jesus, as all our minds would do well frequently to do, who at places in the Gospel accounts is addressed as Teacher (Rabboni).

It is funny that many people who deny the divinity of Christ – no, actually, it is not funny – quickly will concede that He “was a great teacher.” Usually, that is to assure us believers that they sufficiently respect Him… so that we are not offended in a conversation. They don’t mind offending the Son of Almighty God; but they want to avoid offending us.

Jesus was indeed a great teacher, the greatest in human history. But, sorry, friends, that has nothing at all (conflict-avoidance or not) to do with His claims on us.

Jesus was born of virgin, fulfilling prophecy. Accept or reject that, but do not dwell on it in relation to His claims on us.

Jesus performed miracles, healed the sick, raised the dead, which astonished witnesses, both followers and enemies; but those miracles alone did not make him divine – and is separate from His claims on us.

What Jesus really cares about is that we come face to face with the same thing He did: the Cross. He could have done nothing after fulfilling uncountable prophesies; the virgin birth; turning water into wine; walking on water; feeding 5000; raising Lazarus from the dead… and it would not mean that He was God Incarnate, or not. We are not saved by believing that a blind man could suddenly see. Salvation is, rather, in the Cross.

Without the Cross – the death that the Christ was destined to suffer, the punishment in our place, for our sins – and the Resurrection from the Dead, Jesus’ life would be the stuff of information and persuasion, perhaps; but not of Divinity. Those claims on us are the most compelling, and cannot be explained away or hidden behind honorifics of Jesus solely as “a great teacher.”

He was, of course, a great teacher. The greatest. But if that were the extent of His ministry, or His Incarnation… then His plastic nameplate would be lost among thousands of the Teacher of the Year trophies that, eventually, gather dust in our closets and storage boxes.

Jesus is the Teacher of every year, let us agree. But for Eternity, He is the Savior.

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Click: At the Cross

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Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

People of Faith Ask, To Trump Or Not to Trump

5-9-16

I have been asked many questions these days about the proper attitude and informed decisions to be made by Christians and people of faith about the elections this year. To be more precise, I have been asked the same question by many people: Is Donald Trump someone to be trusted; does he know or understand biblical principles and basic Christian creedal tenets; is he someone who will “make deals” with the devil – so to speak – once in office?

I am asked those questions by a variety of folks, in my putative role as a social critic, political commentator, and Christian writer. I have no special insights, not holy ones I claim, anyway. Among those who ask me these burning questions is… myself.

A crazy political season. A crazy world, crazier and more ominous by the day. If it is not the advent of End Times, we might wish it were. We all should be primarily seeking spiritual, moral, and ethical answers – because our major challenges in America are, and have been caused by, spiritual, moral, and ethical lapses.

I will don another one my hats, my actual training as a historian, and posit some observations. Those who make stark critiques and censure are Jeremiahs. Most of us historians, as Gibbon and Macaulay did, wait millennia to make sense of history, to discern missteps.

There is an aspect of the human spirit that tends to think that contemporary crises are unprecedented, perhaps apocalyptic. It cannot always be true; but someday it will be. Oddly, we occasionally adopt the attitude of Dr Pangloss, that “this is the best of all possible worlds,” and in certain ways it too sometimes is correct.

But has our society, in our days, begun its ultimate dissolution? Is it possible that we are past “sliding down the slippery slope” and, rather, in the maelstrom of the flushing toilet of history, a vortex going “down the tubes”?

I think it is reasonable to think so. Too many of our foundations are crumbling, too many moral traditions are denigrated or ignored. But our political season, as crazy as it is, is not unprecedented.

We can look back at other crises in presidential contests. In 1800 the election was deadlocked – at the time, the House of Representatives, not the general populace, voted for president and vice-president, separate votes for each of two candidates; all later adjusted by a Constitutional amendment. Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr each had more votes than the incumbent president John Adams, but a secret deal withheld some of Burr’s electoral support and resulted in his defeat. The invective, chicanery, and dirty dealing all led to what history calls the “Revolution of 1800.” A few years later, Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and eventually fled west where he reportedly attempted to organize an uprising against the United States and/or Mexico.

Let us gloss over the social aspects of Andrew Jackson’s presidency, bereft by scandals, charges of “loose women” in the White House kitchen, and White House events where the president invited the general public, leading to shredding of carpets, destruction of furnishings, and theft of property. Jackson’s presidential campaigns led to the “spoils system” of trading votes for jobs.

In the 1860 election, the Republican Party, then only six years old, gained the White House as beneficiary of four candidates in the field. Abraham Lincoln’s nomination was secured by his manager who forbad Honest Abe from attending or knowing anything about their machinations – such as promising the same federal offices and cabinet positions to more than one person. The campaign was dirty (Secession was imminent) and dangerous (Lincoln reportedly travelled through pro-slavery Baltimore on his way to the inauguration in a plaid cloak and Scottish cap to evade assassins).

In 1896 a virtual unknown, William Jennings Bryan, delivered a speech (the “Cross of Gold”) to the Democrat convention that stampeded the delegates to nominate him in a frenzy. Barely old enough to serve as president, Bryan’s radical, socialist agenda split the party in two and had Americans, those who were not seduced by the firebrand, fearful of blood in the streets.

Theodore Roosevelt, wildly popular on his retirement in 1909, went on an African safari and tour of Europe for a year, partly to grant the spotlight to his hand-picked successor William Howard Taft. But during Taft’s term, there were personal slights of TR; reversal of many Roosevelt policies; serious broken promises; and a calamitous decline in the GOP’s popularity, including the loss of Congress. Severe affronts to Roosevelt, and an irresistible demand from many Republicans, persuaded him to challenge Taft for the nomination.

An ex-president versus a sitting president. Friends became enemies. “Liar” and “Fathead” were among the many epithets. There were mass defections from the GOP after the nomination was wrested from TR, who had won most of the new-fangled primaries. The speakers’ platform at the Republican convention had barbed wire under the bunting, in fear that riots would break out. TR’s bolt of the convention led to the independent Bull Moose party, which soundly trounced the GOP; Taft won only two states. A Socialist, Eugene Debs, polled nearly a million votes. In late October, a bartender who had been persuaded against a Third Term shot Roosevelt point-blank in the chest. TR insisted on continuing to his speech; with blood streaming down his shirt, he spoke for almost 90 minutes. Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the four-way election.

Another year of the gun, 1968: Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy, after a primary victory in California, were killed. A sitting president, Lyndon Johnson, was forced from running again when he could not endure widespread protests and a rebellious Democrat Party. Millions in the streets and campuses; a bitter primary; riots outside the convention; the anarchist Yippies; a candidate nominated (VP Humphrey) who had not even run in the primaries; the return of the has-been Richard Nixon; and the amazing grass-roots revolt of third-party candidate George Wallace. The story of 1968.

So… does this year’s election cycle seem tame yet? For all the elements that foreshadowed our current season of discontent, I think the campaign of 1884 has the most parallels. So far. The GOP, in the White House for 24 straight years, was rife with divisions. Factions called “Half-Breeds” and “Stalwarts” hated each other and vied for power. An office-seeker of one faction had assassinated President James Garfield, of another, when he was frustrated in securing a federal job. Bosses continually attempted a comeback for ex-president Ulysses Grant, whom they could control.

Sen. James G Blaine was the favorite for the nomination. A former Speaker of the House, he had been involved numerous. He sold influence; he had solicited bribes. He arrogantly admitted many of these discretions, but he was a magnetic speaker who swayed crowds and inspired devotion. He faced opposition, however, not so much from strong candidates, but a field of lesser names.

The major threat to Blaine instead was from the reform movement in the GOP, a gaggle of veterans and newcomers. Among the former were George William Curtis and Carl Schurz, whose political careers went back to the Civil War. Leaders of the latter group were young Henry Cabot Lodge and 24-year-old Theodore Roosevelt, a major force in the convention. Their efforts to advance reform candidates failed on the floor.

There was public revulsion against Blaine (“Blaine, Blaine; James G Blaine! The continental liar from the state of Maine!” street crowds chanted) but a lot of GOP voters fell in line. Grover Cleveland, the Democrat candidate, was “ugly honest,” a good reputation for 1884; but midway through the campaign it was revealed that Cleveland had fathered an illegitimate child – remember, this in the staid Victorian era. (“Ma! Ma! Where’s my pa? Gone to the White House, ha ha ha!” rival crowds chanted.) THAT was some campaign.

As in 2016, a large number of Republican politicians and activists faced moral and practical dilemmas. Many of them sincerely believed that Blaine was toxic for the party’s self-esteem and for its future; and they had made threats – or promises – never to vote for Blaine. Excruciating.

There was, collectively, a Solomonic decision. Reformers like Curtis and Schurz and Henry Ward Beecher, America’s most prominent pastor, whose sister had written “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” left the Republican Party, and supported Cleveland. They were dubbed “Mugwumps.”

Reformers like Roosevelt and Lodge, however, reluctantly remained within the party. Never endorsing Blaine, they “supported the ticket,” stating that the only way to influence the party was from within the party. Young TR, whose wife and mother had died a few months earlier (on the same day), left for an understandable “sabbatical” on his cattle ranch in the Dakotas. For two years he was a cowboy, out of the public eye. He made one or two campaign speeches for down-ticket candidates, including Lodge who ran for Congress.

Lodge lost. He and Roosevelt both considered their political futures ruined.

Both were mistaken, of course. Many of the Mugwumps eventually returned to the GOP, which thereafter always had – has had – a reform wing. Cleveland won, but a dozen years later he and many establishment Democrats boycotted the agrarian radical Bryan. Blaine lost the 1884 election, but by a whisker.

The final detail of the final moments of that crazy 1884 campaign might be relevant if not dispositive to troubled Republicans weathering Hurricane Donald this year: a moral, specifically a religious, aspect.

Just before election eve, Blaine attended a dinner of industrialists and monopolists at Delmonico’s in New York. One of the speakers, a nonentity minister, in his speech described the Democrats as the “party of Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” Rum was a smear on lowlife aspects of stereotyped Democrat voters; Rebellion was a reminder of the Democrats’ association with Secession.

Romanism, however, was a word that touched social and religious nerves. It was a direct reference to Catholicism, imputing a congenital association between Democrats and the Pope; and was not meant as a compliment. The consequent furor over the insult (which Blaine had ignored) energized New York City’s Irish immigrants. New York City went Democrat; New York State and its electoral votes narrowly went for Cleveland… enough to tip the national outcome away from the GOP.

The scenario is a different animal than whether to endorse a candidate you distrust or despise in 2016 – but it reminds us that religion is never far from the larger debate. Our civic consciences might still roil over whether to Trump, or not to Trump. Life has gone on in America despite, as Kipling wrote, “The tumult and the shouting dies.”

Myself, I greet with dubiety Trump’s assurances that he is familiar with the Bible, understands doctrine, and has a saving knowledge, as we say, of Jesus Christ. But we are not to judge: I question, however. “God judges the man; voters judge the candidate” is, this year, less of a maxim and feels like more of an excuse.

Many of us have the nagging feeling that things are different this time, that past is less than prologue. The Captains and the Kings may depart, yet we seem closer to our destiny, maybe an apocalypse.

+ + +

Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)

+ + +

Click: I Am a Pilgrim

The Simplest Prayers Are the Most Sincere

5-2-16

The great composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who lived between 1685 and 1750, universally is regarded as one of the great music-makers of the human race; certainly on almost every critic’s list of the great composers of all time.

Bach received additional plaudits when in 1977 the Voyager spacecraft was sent to nowhere in particular except up, with the hope that, hurtling beyond the solar system and maybe the galaxy, it might some day intersect some civilization in a remote part of the universe. Perhaps, it was hoped, aliens would discover and understand something of mankind from the spacecraft’s unique payload – a copper and gold alloy disk with images and music, estimated by its designers “to last a billion years.”

Among the playlist of global music, Bach was the only composer represented thrice: the Second Brandenburg Concerto, first movement, performed by Karl Richter and the Munich Bach Orchestra; the Gavotte from the Violin Partita No. 3; and the Prelude and Fugue from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 2 were chosen to represent humankind’s creative profile.

At the time, biologist Lewis Thomas was asked what he would have nominated for this message to unknown civilizations about humankind. “The complete works of J.S. Bach,” he suggested. “But that would be boasting.”

Such are the sorts of tributes due to Old Bach, among countless heartfelt tributes when trained musicians and common laymen and everyone in between have their hearts melt and their souls stirred by his music.

Bach himself saw his music – and his entire life – as a tribute, instead, in all humility and with his priorities straight, to God Almighty. He was aware, but not vain, about his music-making gifts, gifts from God. Therefore his talents deserved to be raised up to God. In his life, he was first a Christian; second a family man; third, a man who made music. He made music, wrote music, composed music, taught music, was an innovator of music, breathed music, as did his family tree of 40-odd Bachs before, during, and after his own lifetime.

More than half of his approximately 1800 compositions (1200 of which survive) were of Christian focus: cantatas and chorales, motets and masses, Passions and Oratorios.

Yet for all his mighty “secular” works of keyboard and organ pieces, suites and concerti, songs and fugues (whew!)… he viewed all of them, too, to be written as unto the Lord. He knew the Source of his inspiration, and the One to whom credit was due.

Bach began virtually every composition, even his secular music, with a blank paper on which he wrote, Jesu, juva (“Jesus, help me”) on the upper left corner of the first page; and Soli Deo Gloria (“To God alone the glory”) on the bottom right corner of the finished ending.

His was a personal relationship with the Savior, not a professional duty even when he was employed by churches.

Such “bookends” were as anointing oil over all of Bach’s creative work. So did he begin and end his days – and his life – with such petition and praise: “Jesus, help me” and “To God alone be all the glory.” With or without the mode of music, such dedication speaks to us through the years.

The “S.D.G.” (his occasional abbreviation) should have a special meaning to us today. Most people of the 21st century, understand “God,” and understand “glory.” But it is hard for us, in contemporary times, to understand how a man like Johann Sebastian Bach could say, and mean, “alone” in that Credo. Can we?

Emerging cultures and emerging churches have compartmentalized every aspect of life, including God, and arguments are made that God would have it that way. Not so! “Personal fulfillment” is the artist’s goal in today’s world. But to Bach’s worldview, such an idea was an offense.

God “alone” is the source, the content, and the goal of artistic expression. Alone.

These prayers, and the prioritization of “ALONE” when we thank God, is how we should live, and how we should pray. Not (virtually) “thanks for helping me in this way or that way, God”; but “Thank you for being my inspiration, my helper, my right hand, my goal… my all in all.”

When we are too busy to pray, we are… too busy. We all know this, yet it happens. But if – at least – we start every day with the brief “Jesus, help me” as Bach began his compositions; and if we ended every day with “To God alone be the glory,” we will be in appropriate frames of mind.

We will start dwelling on the profound and proper life-truths of those simple prayers. We will not escape from their gentle but deep implications. We will expand on them in our active thoughts, and in our subconscious moments. We will hide those words and their implications in our hearts.

The truths spoken to our lives will become like… tunes we cannot get out of our minds. Like many of Bach’s themes. Musical and spiritual.

+ + +

Real Clear Religion, on whose site many readers have followed Monday Music Ministry, has been to many people an indispensible part of their daily fare. It is going through changes right now after almost seven years.

For those who have followed us on RCR, please be sure to continue receiving our weekly essays by Subscribing to Monday Morning Music Ministry. (See link under “Pages” at right.)
+ + +

The second movement of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite:

Click: Bach’s “Air”

Easter – The Real “His Story” Lesson

Easter 2016

An early Easter message. Appropriate, because I would like us to wrap Good Friday, the “world’s three darkest days,” the Easter Resurrection, and the Ascension all in one meditation. Besides, the Easter story was foretold many years before Jesus’s Passion – throughout the Old Testament, most comprehensively and accurately in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah. That’s an even earlier telling.

The essentials of Jesus’s life on earth are scarcely questioned any more, except by the intentionally scornful: which means that some people do not doubt, but rather reject. The fact of His Resurrection, on the other hand, is a dubiety to some. It is interesting to consider that people saw the risen Christ after the tomb, and yet not everyone believed. They believe Jesus somehow came back to life, but not that He was divine.

Many did come to faith. But even the Jewish historian Jospehus recorded the facts of Jesus’s life and ministry and miracles and resurrection – that Jesus mingled with people for 40 days – yet never came to belief himself. It is not unusual, frankly, to imagine people, even ourselves, to hear about a miracle, possibly witness one, and yet… shrug. Or consider it “one of those things we can’t explain.”

This happens, and it says less about a Resurrected Savior than it does about our stubborn, contrary, or lazy human nature.

Yet there were many records of That Week.

Jesus not only performed miracles, He was a miracle. Everything about His birth, life, and ministry were prophesied. He did amazing things; random things, sometimes, to bring blessings or to prove His divinity. He spoke amazing words, unassailable lessons. He was God incarnate; fully God and fully man, who loved and sorrowed, laughed and wept, ate and drank and traveled. He read minds, calmed storms, and healed the sick.

Yet vulnerability proved to be His major miracle. During His last week, He emptied Himself of divine prerogatives.

He went to Jerusalem, knowing death awaited. And more: scorn, insults, lies, torture, painful crucifixion. It is said that death on the cross is the most excruciating of slow deaths. Myself, I believe that the betrayal, denial, and abandonment of His friends was more painful than His physical end.

As a man, he prayed fervently, we know not all. As God, He willingly bore the humiliation and death, speaking only words like “It is finished” – it being the plan established before the foundations of the world: that this holy Incarnation would satisfy the substitutionary death we all deserve. If we believe and confess this belief, we are saved. Another miracle.

Our contemporary world wants us to believe strange things… strange lies. Not only that there is no God, but that there are no sins. Only mistakes and bad choices. And that medicines, or therapy, or education, or the government will make everything OK. Humankind has asserted mastery of our own souls for several centuries, ever more intensely, inventing reasons to reject God and deny His fingerprints on creation. Lo and behold, the past century was the bloodiest freaking 100 years in history, starring the most savage monsters a secular world could imagine.

Were the events of Holy Week in vain? Christ, with calm determination, fulfilled His destiny. He entered Jerusalem to public acclaim, preserving His humility. By the end of the week the Jewish zealots and the puppets of the Roman government caused people to scream for His murder. It happened… after what we mentioned: humiliation, injustice, abandonment, torture, and death that, perhaps, no mortal among us ever has endured.

He hung on the cross for three hours, comforted, at least, by His beloved mother who did not leave Him. He died; a spear was thrust in His side; the centurions affirmed His death; He was taken to a tomb, washed and prepared for burial, wrapped in cloths. A large stone sealed the tomb, guarded by Roman soldiers with special instructions.

Then, the three darkest days of humankind. What were those like, in Jerusalem? His enemies were satisfied that Jesus, the major troublemaker, celebrity, pretender in their eyes, was finally gone from the scene. But His followers – who should have known better, since they knew scripture and His prophesies – nevertheless despaired. They went into hiding: perhaps His fate would be theirs?

There are records of an earthquake, of stormy skies – of nature groaning – of the veil in the temple spontaneously ripping in two. Could His followers been more despondent and terror-stricken? What days they must have been!

But… Easter dawned. Jesus rose. He lived. He lives. Mary, having met Jesus in the garden, became the world’s first evangelist of the Good News when she ran and told the cowering Disciples.

The rest, to coin a phrase, is history. But it is not quite history as we know it. His story, literally. Mary and her friends saw, and believed. The Disciples, first scared and skeptical, believed, and saw, and believed in ever greater numbers. Jesus, in a transformed body, preached and blessed and taught and performed miracles. More people believed. Within a generation there were churches, gatherings of devout believers, not only in faraway Rome, but in pagan outposts like the island of Britain.

And after 40 days, the final prophecy fulfilled – more than a miracle, but the confirmation of His divinity – the bodily Ascension of the Christ into Heaven. “It is best for you that I go away, because if I don’t, the Holy Spirit cannot come. If I do go away, then I will send the Advocate, the Comforter, to you.” Thus, Christ in us.

But remember That Week. If you are ever tempted to think that your faith would be stronger “if you only could have seen the things of that week,” or if you hear others say that… remember that His Disciples, who lived every day with Him for three years, scattered like autumn leaves. Remember that people who had witnessed miracles wound up demanding His death. Remember that many who saw Him after the tomb still were skeptical.

You can believe in miracles – or not – but believing in Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God; confessing His Resurrection; and inviting Him to live in your heart and life, is the summation of This Week, and the Gospel itself.

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Have you listened to Handel’s Messiah at Christmastime? Even if you have not, I invite you to listen to an equally great masterpiece. The St Matthew Passion by Johann Sebastian Bach tells the story of Easter week. On (coincidentally) this week of Bach’s birthday, number 331, I offer a link to one its greatest performances, conducted by Karl Richter. The art direction is stark! Appropriate, but note the changing backgrounds, the over-arching cross, the mood reflecting the spiritual import. With English subtitles. Three hours, 22 movements. Be prepared!

Click: Bach: St Matthew Passion

After 1500 Years the Man, Not the Myth, Endures

3-21-16

St Patrick’s Day is over, a mini-holiday in the commercialized America that likes to observe at least one holiday a month. The truth is, the American economy might collapse if it were not for our periodic celebrations, three-day weekends, and “holiday” sales.

Approximately one-fourth of all retail sales are in the Christmas season. When you consider the hoopla and commercials built upon Presidents’ Days and Easter Bunnies and Halloweens, you can believe that without formerly Christian holy days and once-patriotic commemorations, our economy would collapse.

Where, once, Christian observances and patriotic anniversaries inspired us, now their superficial and counterfeit shades prop us up.

St Patrick’s Day is in that category. Bins of discounted green plastic hats, and the few remaining posters for green milk shakes, confirm this. Sic Transit gloria mundi. Until next year. Until the next holiday – bunnies and peeps hot on the trail this season. Some Americans even assume that “Saint Paddy” was one of the fictional or dubious Catholic saints, like St Christopher and St George.

But Saint Patrick was real, and is real.

St Patrick knew persecution. There understandably is some obscurity about a man who lived in the late 400s, but two letters he wrote survive; there are records of his deeds; tremendous influences surely attributable to him are still felt; and he did die on March 17. These things, and more, we do know.

He was born in western England and kidnapped by Irish marauders when he was a teenager. As a slave he worked as a shepherd, during which time his faith in God grew, where others might have turned despondent. He escaped to Britain, became learned in the Christian faith, and felt called to return to Ireland. On that soil he converted thousands, he encouraged men and women to serve in the clergy, he worked against slavery, and quashed paganism and heresies. Among his surviving colorful lessons is using the shamrock to explain the mystery of the Trinity, the Triune God, to converts.

He was an on-the-ground evangelist – possibly the church’s first great evangelist/missionary since St Paul, planting churches as far away as Germany – and he preceded much of history: living more than a hundred years prior to Mohammed; 500 years before Christianity split into Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy; and a thousand years before the Reformation.

I am not Irish; I am American. And my background is not at all Irish; it is German. But propelled, I am eager to admit, by a remarkable book, How the Irish Saved Civilization, by Thomas Cahill, I have learned about a gifted people who, not unlike other ethnic groups, endured persecution through generations; and learned about a land that was repository of many tribes, not least the Celts, until its craggy Atlantic coast became the last European stand against pagan barbarism. Those tribes became a people, and their land virtually became, for quite a while, the defiant yet secret refuge of literacy and faith, in lonely monasteries and libraries.

As Lori Erickson recently wrote in a series on St Patrick for Patheos, “In the eighth century, Celtic Christians created a masterpiece of religious art called the The Book of Kells, a book whose vividness, color, and artistic mastery reflect Christian traditions laced with Celtic enchantment. The Book of Kells is an illuminated Latin manuscript of the four Gospels. While scholars don’t know for certain, it was likely created on the remote island of Iona off the coast of Scotland, and later brought to the monastery at Kells, Ireland.

“Made from the finest vellum and painted with inks and pigments from around the world (including lapis lazuli from Afghanistan), the book is almost indescribable in its loveliness, with designs that are convoluted, ornate, sinuous, and dreamlike in their complexity. Some scholars have called it the most beautiful book in the world,” she wrote. I can add that it can be seen as an early graphic novel.

It is on display at the magnificent Trinity College Library in Dublin – whose famous, cavernous, multi-balconied library room is akin to heaven for bibliomaniacs like me – and surrounded by back-lit photos and displays of enlargements, it sits in an environment-controlled case, one page at a time turned every few months. To behold that book, so magnificent in its reproductions, in its reality, was one of the great experiences of my life.

The Book of Kells is awesome for what it is, surely one of the greatest artistic achievements of the human hand, head, and heart. A majestic monument to faith, all the more remarkable for being anonymously produced, unlikely by one person; possibly by a virtual army of creative souls. The Book of Kells is significant, too, for what it represents:

The tenacity of faith; the triumph of trust; the assumption of lonely devotion in the face of worldly temptations and the world-system’s persecutions; the joy of creativity; and obedience to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Knowing Him; making Him known. Not incidentally investing artistic beauty along the way… and having obvious, visceral, evident fun in the process.

Back to Saint Patrick. When the ancient masterpiece we behold as The Book of Kells was created, the man Patrick who bravely and no less tenaciously fought for the gospel on that beautiful soil was already, himself, 500 years in the past. The church has been blessed with famous saints like Paul and Augustine; and those who touched souls for Christ but never were designated saints subsequently, like Martin Luther and J S Bach; and many, many saints who mightily served Christ in obscurity, like the monks who made The Book of Kells, and uncountable missionaries and martyrs.

Saint Patrick, born a pagan, made a slave, once a fugitive, was transformed by a knowledge of Christ. He taught us how to overcome challenges, listen to the Holy Spirit, formulate a vision, and change the world. Not just his world; but the world ever after.

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For more than a millennium a hymn, set to the haunting Irish tune “Slane,” and using St Patrick’s teaching in the words of the 6th-century Irish poet Saint Dallan, has spoken to the hearts of believers and non-believers: God is our All-In-All: Be Thou My Vision. It is performed here – with obvious and profound extra layers of meaning – by the blind gospel singer Ginny Owens.

Click: Be Thou My Vision

More Fools Than Wise

3-14-16

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”

This was written by David, the “sweet singer of Israel,” who, given his lifelong relationship with the Almighty and his activities as Psalmist, warrior, and king, could be considered prejudiced on the matter. He was described in I Samuel as “a man after God’s own heart.” He was a blood ancestor of Jesus. He is even revered as a prophet by Islam.

So this citation from Psalm 14:1 is not a fortune-cookie slogan. David knew whereof he spake, if I may. And I invite us to meditate on the fact that the statement says as much about fools as it does about God.

It is the natural inclination of human beings to say “there is no God.” Sometimes, deep in our dark hearts, we wish it to be so. I think that many sociologists and anthropologists – even atheists among them – recognize that everyone is, nonetheless, born with innate desires to worship… to sense that there is something “greater” than ourselves… that we are coded with something commonly called a conscience.

Believers in the God of the Bible – “People of the Book” as our archaeogenetic spiritual ancestors are called – acknowledge One God. The Father Almighty, maker of heaven and of earth. We believe by faith, and reassure ourselves, and sometimes instruct people, or debate with others, on various bases of logic, history, revelation, the mathematical probability of prophecies and fulfillments, archaeological records, and so forth. We can cite miracle – miracles written about, and miracles we have experienced or witnessed.

But mostly, and ultimately, we rely on faith. The testimony of inner conviction is stronger than any rational formula or reasoned assurance. Truth is not subject to qualification or modification, except ratifications like “Absolute Truth.” What’s true is true. It invites, but cannot be reworked, adjusted, or amended, by arguments or theories; even those of science. Truth is truth. Otherwise, it is like being “sort of pregnant” or “relatively dead.”

The question comes when one asks, “What is Truth?” Ah. That question is also part of the human race’s DNA, so to speak. At some point, at some time, we all ask it. The most famous positing was by Pontius Pilate. I have never been sure whether he asked in genuine humility, or mocking. In any event, Jesus answered, “I am the Truth,” and that wasn’t enough for Pilate nor the rabid Jews whose rebellion he feared.

We will not wander into high weeds or deep swamps here. Accepting the existence of God, or denying Absolute Truth, are both matters of faith to every person.

What does interest me, and should concern us all no matter what our views on these elemental topics, is how quickly and substantially our culture has changed its views on these matters. We cannot see the forest for the trees that are right in our faces, but in the broad sweep of history, the reversal of attitudes about the existence of God and the reality of Absolute Truth is tantamount to intellectual whiplash.

It was my perception, when I was a young student, that all of society (European Christendom as well as the American culture) assumed the existence of God, the immutable nature of His laws, and the biblical foundation of customs and laws. Non-believers, in our democracies, were tolerated, even cordially so, and largely unmolested. Today – in one long generation or two, that’s all – those attitudes have been reversed.

And almost savagely so, with hostility toward Christians replacing cordial tolerance of secularists.

This is the real crisis of our age. It is not a question of being “welcoming” to those with different views; it is more: an entire people denying their intellectual birthrights, surrendering their spiritual inheritance. It is not a matter of favoring “pluralism,” because that dubious term has never meant abandoning one’s own heritage.

We have become a soulless society. Polls say that citizens feel adrift… but average Americans have loosed their anchor-chains, torn up their navigation charts, and long ago set sail away from Home Ports. Well-meaning Christians who have invited this cultural drift (to continue the nautical analogy) then wonder why they have spiritual sea-sickness.

Everyone in this rotting old boat known as America, be they Christians or the new pilots, secularists, can argue, or not, about “values.” In the current political campaign, Christians have been co-opted by spokesmen who “guarantee that in department stores you will be able to put up Merry Christmas signs” (Mr Trump) and have been pigeon-holed as “evangelical” voting blocs, to be delivered to the loudest panderers. This is why Jesus came to earth?

However. Take heart. Take heart for your soul, and the kingdom of God; even if we lose heart over our nation’s well-being and our culture’s future. The waters that roil have been calmed by a Savior before. Above those storm clouds is a heaven, and lodestars by which to navigate. Past the darkest storm clouds is God’s bright sunshine.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (Psalm 111:10).

Let us remember that the God of mercy is still a God of justice. Many will call it vengeance when God’s justice comes. No matter: God’s will is going to prevail, and His Word will be manifest.

“Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.
Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God, or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools…. They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen.”
(Romans 1: 20b-22, 25)

How can anyone continue in unbelief, rebellion, and hostility to His Truth? They would be fools. But their actions – or inactions – are worse, more dangerous, than foolishness.

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“The Silver Swan” was published in composer Orlando Gibbons’s “First Set of Madrigals and Motets of Five Parts,” 1612. A beautiful and challenging poem built on the legend that geese might honk all their lives, but swans let out one note just before death: “More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”

The silver swan, who, living, had no Note,
when Death approached, unlocked her silent throat.
Leaning her breast upon the reedy shore,
thus sang her first and last, and sang no more:
“Farewell, all joys! O Death, come close mine eyes!
More Geese than Swans now live, more Fools than Wise.”

Click: The Silver Swan

Through Death to Life: Two Stories

3-7-16

My good friend Cyndy Hack forwarded an internet message this week, the kind that make the rounds. It is a story behind the writing of a hymn. A book of such stories is something I wanted to write almost 20 years ago… before dozens of such books eventually were published! The amusing aspect of these stories, these books, is that (with all good intentions) some of the stories about the same hymns and gospel songs are quite different!

The story that Cyndy forwarded is about the writing of the great Gospel song “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

Rev Thomas A Dorsey wrote that song some 85 years ago. The circumstances as he later related: He left Chicago to visit a revival service in St Louis. His pregnant wife Nettie was due to give birth some time soon after his scheduled return. When he arrived in St Louis, however, he received a message that his wife had died in childbirth. He rushed home, where two days later his baby boy also died.

Disconsolate and bitter, he yelled at God and cried to God, and a friend, hearing how he addressed the Lord, remonstrated and told Dorsey to say, “Precious Lord.” Almost immediately the words and music of that great song, “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” came to his mind.

It has become a standard in hymnals of the Black church and evangelical White churches; and in recorded music, touching millions, in familiar versions by Mahalia Jackson to Johnny Cash, sung at the funerals of Martin Luther King, Jr., and US presidents. It is Dorsey’s most popular gospel song, except, possibly, for “Peace in Valley,” recorded by Elvis Presley, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and many others.

But Tom Dorsey began his career better known for blues, jazz, and “juke” music, raunchy songs that made him rich and famous. He was associated with blues legend Ma Rainey, and had one of the first best-selling records in 1928 with “Tight Like That.” In those days he was known as Georgia Tom and Barrelhouse Tom.

In 1930 his wife and son died. And his own soul was reborn.

The internet story I received was about the song, and the circumstances of its composition… but focused on the “little-known fact” that Big Band leader Tommy Dorsey had this story as part of his autobiography. Actually, all he had was the same name as Thomas A Dorsey. Never a Christian music-maker, Tommy Dorsey was already a famous jazz musician by 1930 in a big band with his brother Jimmy. But… sometimes “viral” stories are false-positives.

Also this week, millions of people learned of the death of Joey Martin Feek, the distaff member of Joey+Rory, the country/ gospel/ bluegrass duo. Millions of their fans were shocked by not surprised at the death of the 40-year-old singer, who fought a valiant battle with cervical cancer.

The performing couple had seemed to come out of nowhere. They won Grammy awards and attracted a following among fans of traditional music – and traditional lifestyles. Joey and Rory remained close to the land, raising food on their farm amidst growing demands of their musical lives. Around the time of her cancer diagnosis, Joey gave birth to a little girl, Indiana, with Down Syndrome.

The internet giveth: fans and strangers by the multitudes began following the careers; the anguish and joys of motherhood; the horrible diagnosis, prognosis, and defiance of cancer; and Joey’s last days… in the hospital, recording at home, holding Indie till the end.

Joey Feek lost her hair and her weight but she never lost her faith.

Her husband Rory posted this week: “My wife’s greatest dream came true today. She is in Heaven. The cancer is gone, the pain has ceased and all her tears are dry…. At 2:30 this afternoon, as we were gathered around her, holding hands and praying, my precious bride breathed her last. And a moment later took her first breath on the other side.

“When a person has been through as much pain and struggle as Joey’s been through, you just want it to be over. You want them to not have to hurt anymore, more that you want them to stay with you. And so, it makes the hard job of saying goodbye just a little easier.”

“Coincidentally,” when Cyndy forwarded the internet account of Tom Dorsey, it was the day that Joey Feek died… and I remembered that one of Joey+Rory’s favorite songs and biggest hits was their version of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” I share it here.

Two music makers, their stories united by the same Gospel song. Two stories of Christians’ trials, and triumphs, ironically motivated by grim death. Circumstances that could discourage… but, instead, they inspire!

Different versions, different stories, different life experiences… but the same Savior! The same hope! The same sweet fellowship.

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Click: Take My Hand, Precious Lord

The Two-Faced God

1-4-16

Happy new year. Out with the old, in with the new. Happy January. A time for new beginnings. For all those resolutions to be broken!

Many of our days and months have names that were inspired largely by ancient mythologies and pagan customs. Even Easter, for instance, was named for Isis (no, not that ISIS), the Egyptian mythological deity who married her brother Osiris, was also known as Ishtar, and perhaps inspired the word for East. Germanic tribes had a Spring festival (Oestern, a cognate of Easter) that looked eastward, to the sun and fertility.

So it is with what we call January. Its name is derived from the Roman god of beginnings and transitions – hence “presiding” over the end and beginning of the year. One of the few Roman gods not inherited and transmogrified from the Greeks, Janus became an important figure in the mythological pantheon. He lives in more than calendar pages; when I stay in Bologna, my favorite hotel is the Torre di Iano (Tower of Janus), an ancient villa originally dedicated to the god.

Does all this fit with Christianity? Deeper than we might think at first. January is an appropriate time to reminisce, “process,” and look forward. But so is every day of the year! OK, we all need “hooks,” reminders, disciplines. Does God sanction such activities? He does more: He encourages them.

Interestingly, Janus was always depicted as a two-faced god. On coins, in carvings and mosaics, he looked both forward and back. To play Bulfinch and parse the Roman myths, Janus specifically was the god of transitions. Here is where, as always, the God of the Bible is superior to any deities of the world’s mythologies or false phenomenologies. Our God should be, has been, will be in our relations and transitions. He is in our pasts and futures. In truth, He is our past, and our future.

But Christians, today, tend to think less and less of the past. In our contemporary and often post-Christian world, we take the past for granted… or decline to be convicted by its lessons. We might pray ourselves through troubled time; but – consistent with our consumerist culture? – look ahead. Like the right-half of Janus. Hope, confidence, optimism if we can summon it… we have become a people who look ahead.

But we would do well to think a little more than we do about the past. What brought us here? What are the details of our heritage? What have our forebears sacrificed for us? What lessons from the past present themselves to us?

These are important questions! For without understanding our past, our futures are gambles… aimless wanderings… games with no yard-markers, goalposts, or rules. The past is more than prologue: it is certain; the future is uncertain.

And the past is often painful. Parents will know – and all former children will remember – that lectures about a hot stove do little good, compared to the one time that the hot stove actually is touched! We must pay attention to what brought us here, to avoid Prof. Santayana’s aphorism that “those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat.”

There is specific lesson – I would call it, rather, a powerful reminder – from something related to the Christmas season recently commemorated. As we re-pack our ornaments and take last looks at pretty greeting cards, it is important to remember something that we might have overlooked amidst the Christmas music and colorful wrapping paper and cookies. The past often holds a lot of pain. Much distress. Hurts, and sometimes excruciating angst. Life, in other words.

But this is good for us to know. Among the “whole armor of God” you will not find rose-colored glasses. Life is real, life is earnest. Even Christmas was associated with much pain and distress. As we approach the Feast of the Epiphany, it is decidedly an observance of transitions… but not neutral, as those of Janus. It is literally the celebration of the Incarnation: not merely Christ being born, but His introduction to humankind.

Traditions assign the Epiphany to the visit of the Magi; to Jesus’s religious dedication; to the 12th night; even to His baptism. The point is – remembering Jesus as Messiah: God-with-us.

Do you remember that Jesus’s birth was not all angels and harps? It was, for this world He came to save, like painful birth pangs, as a mother in labor would experience. Do you know that one of the sweetest-sounding of ancient lullabies actually is one of the saddest of laments that could be sung?

Matthew, Chapter 2, and historical tradition tell of King Herod’s obsession with preventing a rival to his authority; and when he was convinced that biblical prophecy was close to fulfillment, he ordered the death of boys less than two years old throughout the land. It has become known as “The Slaughter of the Innocents.”

It was symbolic, of course, of the world-system’s vicious resistance to the very concept of a Messiah. The presence of Jesus is a rebuke to those feel no awareness of their sin and dependency, who elevate Self over Revealed Truth. Christ’s enemies are not trivial nor easily dismissed, no matter how surely to be conquered. It was so, then; and it continues to be so, today. The Slaughter of the Innocents – a part of the Christmas story as relevant as the shepherds and angels – reminds us that ugly forces in life tried to keep our Savior from us. And still do.

The most haunting of Christmas carols, to which I referred, is known as The Coventry Carol. It was written in the 1500s, and its plaintive melody is one of the great flowerings of polyphony over plainsong in Western music. “Lullay, thou little tiny child,” is not a lullaby, and does not refer to the baby Jesus.

The carol is a lament by a mother of one of the babies slaughtered by Herod’s soldiers:

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny child, Bye, bye, lully, lullay.
Lullay, thou little tiny child, Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do, For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we do sing Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Herod, the king, in his raging, Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight, All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child for Thee! And ever mourn and sigh,
For thy parting neither say nor sing, Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

Utterly melancholic, as the harmonies are hauntingly beautiful. It is a fitting creation that must be part of our Christmastide observances, and Epiphany. Kings are still in their raging, but Jesus cannot be stopped by debates. He has never long been thwarted by bureaucratic rules. He was not even subject to death and the grave.

This January, look forward, yes; pray God’s blessing in your transitions; but remember the past. Hold to what it teaches. Be nurtured by the blessings it holds. And be thankful that our God is not, in the parlance of world, “two-faced,” but ever faithful.

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The Coventry Carol is so named because this song, in Old English first called “Thow Littel Tyne Childe,” had its origins in a “Mystery Play” of Norman France and performed at the Coventry cathedral in Britain. The play was called “The Mystery of the Shearmen and the Tailors,” based on the second chapter of Matthew. The anonymous lyrics are a mother’s lament for her doomed baby boy. All but this song from the mystery play are lost today. The earliest transcription extant is from 1534; the oldest example of its musical setting is from 1591. It still speaks to our hearts today. Performed here by Collegium Vocale Gent, conducted by Peter Dijkstra, in the
Begijnhofkerk at Sint-Truiden, Flanders.

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Click: Coventry Carol

Calm Down and Hold On

11-23-15

An ironic side-effect of the current wave of bombings and attacks against Christians by fringe-group Mohammedan jihadis is the revival of disputes between Christians. Not Moslems vs Christians; but Christians vs Christians.

On the airwaves, in churches, on street corners, over dinner tables, proponents range and rage. Put aside the ancient debates about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin: I would not be surprised if even those angels are arguing as they dance on the heads of pins.

What would Jesus do? Should we stop the flow of refugees? Are some of them “refujihadis”? Should persecuted Christians from the Middle East receive preference? Are we being bigots as we express wariness of Moslems? Do we invite slaughter on our doorsteps? Isn’t it about who we ARE as a people? What is wrong about wanting to preserve our inheritance and traditions? And so forth.

It seems certain that there is not one answer to each question. There might be no good answers. They might all have bad answers. Maybe the choices of the Christian West, speaking generically of our background and heritage, are Bad and Worse. Challenges that shift and morph are difficult to solve wisely. Enemies who declare their blood-lust hatred but refuse to expose themselves are complicated adversaries, surely.

Theoretical, even theological, responses, in the face of secular and Christian dissenters with whom we contend, are influenced by putting ourselves in the places of persecuted refugees (I hope none of us identifies with embedded terrorists)… or innocent potential victims.

There are many aphorisms in folk wisdom, which we all revere, that nevertheless contradict themselves. “He who hesitates is lost,” yes; but “Look before you leap.” Life lessons whose wisdom, sometimes, is difficult to discern. The Bible is no different – in fact it contains the pre-eminent life lessons.

Yet we have Jesus adjuring uncharitable listeners with the parable of the Good Samaritan… but told His disciples to tend to the Jewish “lost sheep” before the Samaritans. He tells us to “turn the other cheeks” but overturned money-changers’ tables and called people “fools, blind guides, hypocrites, murderers, brood of vipers, tombs with rotting corpses inside, hell’s offspring,” etc. Was Jesus inconsistent? No, God cannot lie, and Bible scholarship relies on scripture confirming scripture – contexts, cases, prayerfully perceiving God’s will.

So it is with “secular” issues… many of which, today, are not so secular after all.

In 1988 I took my family on a vacation to Europe, landing in Paris and proceeding through France to Germany. In 1988-89, the Eiffel Tower was painted a tan color that looked dull up-close, but at night, in floodlights, gave it a look of pure gold. It was for the 100th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 World’s Fair.

One evening we took a boat ride around Paris on the Seine, watched a fireworks display, then went up the Eiffel Tower to view the city, and for a late snack. It is not a one elevator-ride express, ground level to top: there are platforms with shops and restaurants. But we decided to go all the way to the top, and then walk down the iron-rail steps a level or two.

My daughter Emily, who was only five, suddenly froze in fear halfway down one of the stages. It was hard to get her to move… until we suggested that we all hold hands and walk down together. Some people joined us (including an Australian couple we met again on a tour bus in Germany a week later!).

At one point, Emily smiled and looked up and said, “If we all hold hands, we can do ANYTHING!”

That is true today as well. In Paris, certainly. And all over the world. And… in our own neighborhoods.

Before we can join hands with our enemies, even potential enemies, we must learn to join hands with one another. But does it seem, these days, that this is the more difficult challenge?

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Click: Jesus, Hold My Hand

Foes of Our Own Household

11-16-15

“Your enemies will be right in your own household!” a prophecy of Jesus, recorded in Matthew 10:36, New Living Translation. In King James language, “there will be foes of your own household.”

The monstrous attacks in Paris this week – coordinated, well-planned, replete with torture, and gunmen praising Allah – will, I fear, someday be looked back upon as mild foreshadows. We already have lists, three-dozen incidents long, of terror attacks on Western buildings, trains, ships, sporting events, restaurants, and schools. These atrocities have largely been perpetrated by Moslems, and have been accompanied, generally subsumed by, bloodier and more vicious attacks on Christians.

Christians all over the world have been targeted by means of displacement, ethnic cleansing, prison, torture, rape, slavery, dismemberment, crucifixions, and beheadings.

Without exception, these barbarities are committed by members of the Islamic religion, followers of Mohammed (blessed be his name). And this is not in the seventh century – I mean, not ONLY in the seventh century – but in the year of our Lord 2015. Last year there were an approximate 16,800 terror attacks worldwide, and approximately 43,000 deaths (State Department figures, therefore probably low).

The recent carnage in the City of Lights, Paris, is different than targeted attacks against military bases or naval vessels. And I can understand the blind rage of populations who have lost their homes and liberty, pushed into, or out of, occupied lands. Another topic, and very important.

But it is a condition, not a theory, that confronts us.

The Christian West is being attacked and eaten at the edges, just as Rome was in its last phase. The self-destructive West (including the United States) is morally flaccid as it refuses to defend its values and heritage. In a paroxysm of folly, however, these days we invite the hordes in. Do you call it madness, the Spirit of Contemporary Western Civilization seems to ask. “Very well, then,” it answers, paraphrasing Walt Whitman; “So I am mad.”

Jesus explained the past and prophesied the future that will usher the End Times: “…it will be like it was in Noah’s day. In those days before the flood, the people were enjoying banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat. People didn’t realize what was going to happen until the flood came and swept them all away. That is the way it will be…” (Matt. 24: 37-39 NLT).

We all go to bed, get up, manage households, do our jobs, worry about finances, raise kids, follow sports teams, love our favorite entertainers, watch movies, “give in marriage and being given”; and go to bed all over again. Meanwhile the apocalypse is coming. When we are made aware, we wish it away. That is, we wish it goes away.

Our leaders, and our celebrity sheepherders, soothe us into false serenity by telling us that less vigilance will keep us safer. That not calling our enemies by their names will make them go away. That abandoning our faith is the answer to the world’s current crisis of faith.

The extreme predicament, the jeopardy that threatens us and our children and our precious heritage, is not material or geographic or economic; it is spiritual at its core. The only solution, therefore, is spiritual. Not the best response, but the only response.

Many Facebook posts after the Paris bloodbath objected to people who urged prayers for the French and the families of those slaughtered. A common meme: “We need less religion, not more prayers.” “Religion is what fuels all this.” Like rats eating at a rotten corpse, like bacilli devouring a host organism, the foes of our own household want to destroy Christianity and Western Civilization. Few of these who whine are Mohammedans – and, if history provides a pattern, they would be the first to be slaughtered by revolutionaries. Even before the holders of the flames of our heritage. Violent revolutions routinely “eat their babies” first.

As all this continues to play out (and there are few signs that matters will reverse themselves), Islamic radicals flooding Europe display little humility and gratitude, much hatred and bloodlust. On Facebook, the world’s bulletin board, we see numerous promises to rape our daughters, burn our churches, and kill us all.

But these murderers and murderers-in-waiting are second-in-line to receive blame. They are Refujihadis, doing their jobs, after all. They despise Christians, but, if anything, hold secular cultures in more contempt: hence, attacks on France, the US, and Western Europe.

The guilty parties, dear Brutus, are not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings. The contemporary Christian – you and I? – are of the generation that has lost our way, failed to discipline our children, allowed ourselves to be deceived by seditious leaders, numbed by mass entertainment, and… we no longer believe or live by the faith of our fathers. Having, some among us, the form of godliness but denying the power thereof.

Another prophecy: “You live among rebels who have eyes but refuse to see. They have ears but refuse to hear. For they are a rebellious people” (Ezekiel 12:2 NLT).

Foes of our own households.

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A larger view of life, representing our duty to view the world and Christendom, written by Don Moen. Don was, neat coincidence, the college roommate of my friend Michael Cardone. Sung by Robin Mark.

Click: When It’s All Been Said and Done

Answer My Prayer!!!

11-9-15

One of the unique attributes of our God, one of the astonishing ways He relates to us, is communication. He could be what pagan religions imagined, a stone statue or a golden idol. Or He could have revealed Himself through a wise man, now dead; or a prophet, instead of becoming an incarnate human to whom we can relate, who confirmed His divinity by overcoming death.

He is a Holy God – not a cool next-door neighbor – so there are attributes that are also remote and mysterious, an appropriate dichotomy for the Creator of the Universe. But the most mysterious communication He ordains is also the simplest: prayer.

And now about prayer. … When you pray, go away by yourself, all alone, and shut the door behind you and pray to your Father secretly, and your Father, who knows your secrets, will reward you. Don’t recite the same prayer over and over as the heathen do, who think prayers are answered only by repeating them again and again. Remember, your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!
(Matthew 6:5-8)

He knows our needs before we pray… yet we are commanded to pray… He hears us… He promises to answer prayer. Even Jesus set an example for us by frequently going aside, seeking solitude, praying alone before trials and important challenges.
God can already read our minds, know our thoughts, so why does He desire that we pray? Knowing our innermost desires or requests is not communication. How wonderful that He has established prayer as a way for us to focus: to order our priorities, to approach Him with proper attitudes; to put into “groaning,” as sometimes happens, the anguish of our souls.

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. (Romans 8:26)

So we have a spiritual situation – truly, a gift – where we do not approach a stone idol or open the sayings of a dead teacher. We can approach, and boldly, the Throne of Grace. Answers? We know from Bible accounts, and testimonies of uncountable believers through history and in our midst, and from our own experiences, how answered payer comes.

God works through circumstances. Let the skeptics laugh, but Christians “know that we know that we know.” My wife, several times in her life, heard audible words from God. My daughter Heather has a remarkable manner in which she sometimes prays – walking, driving, moving about, having a conversation with Jesus. He is our best friend, after all.

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4: 6,7)

There are many people who might not be skeptics, exactly, but yet be skeptical, or still seeking about this thing called prayer. What about prayers that are not answered? (If asked sincerely, we must know that God still answers – sometimes in His timing; sometimes in His wisdom; we are to wait.) What about prayers that go against our desires? (We must test our prayers – making demands upon God are not prayers, any more than a threat is not a conversation.) What about heartfelt pleas for things we deeply want? (God will lead us to know the difference between our needs and our desires.) What about answers to prayer that are disappointing? (God, who loves us, and knows what is best for us, should be trusted when He sometimes answers “no.”)

Despite these guideposts, troubled people can still have problems finding answers in, or through, prayer. I realize that; this sometimes describes myself.

Let us create a hypothetical. A couple has desired to adopt children, and prayed fervently over the commitments and practicalities. They feel in their hearts a “leading” to go forward. They faithfully proceed through the long and tortured process. Every step of vetting and screening is bathed in prayer. They are “matched” with children, eventually take them into their home, praise God for answered prayer, and rear them with the same love as for their biological children.

Continuing the hypothetical, the adoptees – from a very troubled background – manifest behavior that indisputably make the adoption untenable. Despite the application of prayer, and the best efforts of family, the agencies, police, doctors, and the parents’ hopeful hearts, circumstances make necessary the reversal of the adoption.

In these or similar situations (hypothetical or very real), what are people to say of prayer, which guided believers at every step? “The fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much,” the Bible assures us. What “much”? Obedience can never be regretted. Seeds are planted, lessons learned, and there are answers we do not see. Or see right away. Or ever see. But God works His ways.

Souls that grieve, especially after prayerful decisions seemingly gone wrong, benefit from a certain type of prayer. Above is the verse that speaks of “groanings” we do not verbalize but are carried to God by the Holy Spirit. Praying in the Spirit is as old as Pentecost after Christ’s Ascension; the invitation for us to communicate with God by praying in tongues, the Bible’s “prayer language.”

But however communicated, the prayer line that was valid during your hope-filled crisis is just as valid afterward. The peace you sought is still waiting for you. God has the same “ears” to listen, and you have the same heart to receive. He is whispering this to you.
When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. (Psalm 34:17)

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Through prayer, and in prayer, because of prayer, we realize that the God of the mountain is still God in the valley. At a recent Isaacs Family concert at the First Baptist Church of Kearney, Missouri, they spotted Lynda Randle (sister of Michael Tait of dc talk and Newsboys) in the audience. She was persuaded to sing her signature song.

Click: God On the Mountain

When NOT To Turn the Other Cheek

10-26-15

A Reformation lesson.

The observance of Reformation Sunday also provides an umbrella over a discussion of “tolerance,” Christian charity, “turning the other cheek,” loving your enemies, and similar topics. In the United States Reformation Sunday has come to be observed on the last Sunday in October, but is conterminous with All Saints’ Day. It is a legal holiday in parts of Germany, in Slovenia (despite its majority Catholic population), in Chile, and elsewhere.

October 31 is when the German monk Martin Luther, pushed to holy exasperation by the Catholic Church’s selling of indulgences (certificates promising to keep one from hell) and other extra-biblical practices, nailed a list of his complaints to the cathedral door in Wittenberg. These were the “95 Theses” – a lengthy set of arguments indeed – and are regarded as the spark that ignited the kindling of resentment and reform within the Catholic church.

Protestantism – now myriad denominations – resulted. First followers of Luther, then Calvin, the Wesleys, Pietists, Puritans, Baptists, Anabaptists, Anglicans, through evangelicals to perhaps the church’s very first manifestations again, Pentecostals. The Roman Church remains, as do various Orthodox traditions.

The Reformation came to my mind when, as occasionally happens, a subscriber to this blog “unsubscribed.” Actually it was an old friend, and the spark for him was an essay in which I criticized recent social trends, and took President Obama to task, I think over his advocacy of homosexual marriage or abortion, contrasted to his professed Christian faith; or perhaps it was his Administration’s virtual silence in the face of Christian persecution around the world.

I thought, and think, that such attitudes and national policies deserve criticism. “Not interested in political critiques,” my friend wrote. To me, policies make politics, no avoiding it. And Protestants originally were those who Protested.

Once I asked the cartoonist Al Capp about making a distinction between commentary and pure humor. He saw none, and replied, “Every cartoonist is a commentator. Even when you draw a cat, you automatically are commenting on cats.” In a similar manner, contemporary life has tuned everything political: much affects us, and reactions are inevitable; this is politics, in a way. But everything is not “partisan” – this party or that; liberal or conservative – and many people confuse the two P words.

Many Christians cite the scriptural admonitions to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, “render unto Caesar,” and, at the extreme of these modes, to honor the “divine right of kings.” My friend objects to receiving blogs with points of view, and I can sympathize. Many of us fends off scores of these every day. I have a friend who submits magazine articles critical of the Christian Right, a shorthand term, and even has invented conversations with Christ in the manner of the Socratic elenchus. Between this and an essay mentioning policies that are counter-Christian… a distinction perhaps without a difference.

Speaking personally – which I do in these messages – I wrestle with the challenge of resisting laws, rules, and practices that I consider inimical to the cause of Christ.

Yes, we should obey laws; and the Bible says that has God has ordained those in authority, that He has placed those in authority. But, obviously, we are free in God’s eyes to resist the appeals of incumbents to vote for them, and instead support their opponents. No? Should Jews have been compliant in Nazi Germany? Were Blacks wrong to commit civil disobedience against segregation? If our Christian beliefs convince us that abortion is murder, must we remain silent? decline to work for change if we can?

God has given us brains (that is, consciences — not always the same thing) as well as hearts, and I am quick to acknowledge the slippery slope of applying the argument that we can love our own enemies but not God’s. Possibly too facile, so we rely on prayer and the Holy Spirit. But yet, challenges and contradictions confront us.

It brings me (a happy inspiration) to Reformation. The attitude that we must without deviance obey ecclesiastic and civil authority, as Christians, would condemn the martyrdom of uncountable saints past and present. What of those in the Age of the Apostles who defied Rome in order to establish Christian communities? What of those who defied their superiors to translate Scripture, and to evangelize? What of the reformers, in centuries before and centuries after Luther, who worked to return Christianity to biblical foundations?

Among others, if the Wesley brothers had been compliant clergymen, not dissenting nor resisting, where would our faith, our hymnals, our churches be today?

Welcome back to the dichotomy: one man’s “injecting politics” is another man’s “defending Christianity” or defining morality. To navigate the slippery slope recognizes the need, as we said, for prayer and Holy Spirit guidance at all times.

I am reminded of David’s petition to God, in Psalm 109, that He punish and discomfit those who accused and disagreed with him. And – on Reformation Day – I cite the words of Martin Luther, the priest who defied the Pope; criticized his fellow, corrupt, churchmen; published 95 scathing critiques; publicly burned the Papal Bull (arrest warrant) against him; refused to renounce his writings; was caught up in the “politics” of the day and went into hiding to save his life; and, commanded to renounce his views, declared: “Here I stand. I can do no other.”

From his great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:

Though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God has willed His truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.

That Word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours, through Him who with us sideth.
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever!

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I have heard the Battle Hymn of the Reformation performed, in many venues large and small, including on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth, in the cathedral chapel in the city of Augsburg, Germany, where he defended his faith. And I have sung it myself uncountable times, frequently with tears in my eyes. But few performances have the impact of Steve Green, singing it a cappella before 70,000 men at a Promise Keepers gathering.

Click: A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

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About The Author

... Rick Marschall is the author of 74 books and hundreds of magazine articles in many fields, from popular culture (Bostonia magazine called him "perhaps America's foremost authority on popular culture") to history and criticism; country music; television history; biography; and children's books. He is a former political cartoonist, editor of Marvel Comics, and writer for Disney comics. For 10 years he has been active in the Christian field, writing devotionals and magazine articles; he was co-author of "The Secret Revealed" with Dr Jim Garlow. His biography of Johann Sebastian Bach for the “Christian Encounters” series (Thomas Nelson) was released in April, 2011. Read More